Jessica Whitmore: Film Review: Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet (1996)

Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is a highly stylized, modern interpretation of the original play. The characters in Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet are set in Verona Beach, a city which is reminiscent of Miami circa the 1990’s. Unlike Zeffirelli’s 1968 adaptation of the same play, which poses the characters in “fair Verona” (Shakespeare, 1597) during the twelfth century, Luhrmann stays true to the dialogue of Shakespeare’s play whilst responding to the Generation X demographic.

Zeffirelli’s adaptation of Romeo & Juliet is known as one of the most popular Shakespeare-inspired films. The casting of young actors, Leonard Whiting (17) and Olivia Hussey (15) as the star-crossed lovers brought a similarly youthful audience to be taken with one of the greatest love stories of all time. The actors in the 1968 film, however, fall short with their performances, as they were both untrained actors. Hussey’s Juliet is a fairly unlikeable and simpering child, which is a disappointment to a self-identified feminist.  The recitation of the text also leaves something to be desired, as Zeffirelli trimmed approximately half the dialogue from Shakespeare’s original.

Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet, stylistically, is a far cry from Zeffirelli’s portrayal of Renaissance pageantry. The characters are featured in casual dress: Hawaiian shirts on the Montagues and Snakeskin on the Capulets. The film opens with Shakespeare’s Prologue, “Two households, both alike in dignity…From ancient grudge break to new mutiny…” (Shakespeare, 1597), which is voiced by a television newscaster as the scene unfolds like a modern-day gang war.

In Act One: Scene One, when Benvolio exclaims, “Put up your swords; you know not what you do!” (Luhrmann, 1996), the characters do not literally use swords, but instead use guns, which are adorned with the owners’ household on the holsters. The dialogue is mirrored from Shakespeare’s play, but Luhrmann uses Shakespeare’s words as metaphors to evoke his contemporary interpretation.

A common critique of Luhrmann’s Shakespeare adaptation is that the directorial style is not consistent with the pace of Shakespeare’s original. The cuts are made often and frantically, as if the audience is watching an MTV music video on ritalin. Zeffirelli’s adaptation of Romeo & Juliet is revered as being a congruent representation of Shakespeare’s intended vision. Zeffirelli’s adaptation, though true to the time period, costumery, and sets, is lacking in a proper representation of Shakespeare’s dialogue. Luhrmann, though creating a bastardized reflection of Shakespeare’s original play, still respects and recognizes the original dialogue.

The actors of Luhrmann’s adaptation are also of more merit than those of Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet. Claire Danes plays Juliet as a coy young woman, but brings depth to a character which has been portrayed as a ninny for the better part of a century. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo, at times, does not have superior diction in that he pronounces “tonight” sometimes as “tanight” with a thick American accent. Despite the problems with his enunciation, DiCaprio’s Romeo is emotive of Shakespeare’s tragedy beyond expression in Act Three: Scene One, when he cries, “Oh, I am fortune’s fool!” (Luhrmann, 1996) upon his slaying of Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt.

Romeo & Juliet is a tragedy, but Luhrmann brings a light-hearted humour to his adaptation. The primary characters: Romeo, Juliet, Mercutio, Tybalt, and Benvolio are portrayed with an appropriate measure of seriousness. The secondary characters, however, are often presented as mad caricatures of their literary counterparts. Juliet’s nurse is portrayed as a spanish housemaid who pronounces Juliet’s name as “Who-lee-et”. Juliet’s mother, Lady Capulet, makes her first appearance in Act One: Scene Three, during her preparation for the Capulet’s costume-themed party. The frantic cuts, and the exaggeration of accents in Luhrmann’s film are reminiscent of a theatrical musical. This must be reminiscent to Luhrmann’s theatrical past, as the son of professional ballroom dancers. Luhrmann’s adaptation is glitzy and consistent with what you might expect on stage for a Las Vegas show.

Romeo’s best friend, Mercutio, is a cross-dressing joker in Luhrmann’s film. Mercutio consistently makes light of the violence depicted in Shakespeare’s play and the audience truly mourns when he is killed. In Act Three: Scene One, Benvolio asks Mercutio, “Art thou hurt?” (Luhrmann, 1996). Mercutio chokes on his laughter and replies, “Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch” (Luhrmann, 1996), waving away Benvolio’s concern for him. Mercutio laughs and his friends smile, relieved as Mercutio’s laughter soothes their worries.

Mercutio remains playful, before he realizes his death had been brought on by the confused rivalry of the Montagues and Capulets. In his dying breaths, Mercutio shouts, “A plague on both your houses!” (Luhrmann, 1996). The comic relief has subsided, and the remainder of the film takes a violent turn from the dreamy haze of lovemaking by Romeo & Juliet.

Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet is a vast departure from previous Shakespeare adaptations, regardless of the play. That being admitted, the performances are magnetic, the directorial style is thrilling, and the soundtrack is wicked. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet is highly enjoyable to watch and re-watch if one has an open-mind.

References

Luhrmann, B., Martinelli, G. (1996) Romeo and juliet [Film]. Mexico: Twentieth Century Fox

Shakespeare, W. (1597). Romeo and juliet [Play]

 

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