Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet is a great example of the ways in which film techniques can accentuate and enhance Shakespeare’s plays. Luhrmann’s use of film language is successful in creating a more intensified version of Romeo and Juliet. There is a looming sense of a higher power and strong themes of fate and destiny at work in Shakespeare’s original text. Luhrmann translates these textual themes into strong visual motifs that heighten the intensity of the story.
In the opening sequence of Romeo + Juliet, a television report and newspaper headlines take the role of the chorus and describe the tragic nature of the story that is about to unfold in a modern context. This introduction frames the inevitable demise of the young lovers and introduces the violence of the feud between their two houses. The film is successful in vividly showing the viewer what Shakespeare’s chorus could only tell in words. Instead of using their imaginations, viewers are thrusted into an aggressive visual montage of flash cuts and zooms, dramatic opera music, and turbulent camera work depicting the Montague and Capulet’s violent crimes against each other.
One of the first images in the opening montage is the statue of the Christ figure that stands in the centre of the city. Throughout the film, this symbol works to represent the themes of fate and determinism in the story. The opening sequence cuts to a close-up of the statue’s face, then slam zooms out to a long shot of the city of Verona, where the statue is flanked by two skyscrapers that say “Capulet” and “Montague” respectively. This shot establishes the two houses as well as a sense of higher power because of the presence of the religious statue between them. The juxtaposition of violence and symbols of fate with the urgent nature of news headlines, coupled with a dramatic film score, gives the prelude to Shakespeare’s play far more intensity than can be achieved on-stage. The opening montage also makes use of flash-forward cuts that show powerful moments from the story, which situates the viewer within the inevitable drama and tragedy that is about to unfold. Luhrmann also uses flash-forward cuts as well as flash-backs throughout the film to add visual potency and to further drive home the theme of fatefulness.
Another scene which demonstrates the effectiveness of film language in Shakespeare is the scene on Verona Beach where Mercutio meets his death at the hand of Tybalt. The scene starts off with Mercutio teasing Tybalt but it quickly becomes heated between the two and the camera work is chaotic, almost becoming a character amidst the scuffle of the confrontation. The group of men circle around the camera in heated dialogue and the film score becomes more intense.The confrontation moves to what appears to be a run-down theatre stage on the beach, paying homage to Shakespeare and adding metatheatrical element to the scene.
The scene comes to a climax and Mercutio is fatally wounded, at which point the wind on the beach picks up and there is a thunderstorm, accentuating the emotion and seriousness of Mercutio’s death. The storm coming in during this scene also foreshadows to the tragedy to follow, as Romeo is about to murder Tybalt, his new wife’s cousin, in a rage of revenge. This visual device works to represent once again the active role of fate in the character’s lives.
The following scene, where Romeo and Tybalt fight each other in a passionate fit of rage, uses the mise-en-scene of the stormy, rainy weather to emphasize the tragic and emotional nature of the scene. The fast-paced action of the car chase is exciting and accentuates the characters rage as Luhrmann cuts back and forth between close-ups of the two rivals. The music is dizzying as Romeo shoots Tybalt dead into the fountain. The thunder rumbles again and the rain starts to pour as he realizes the severity of what he’s done and exclaims “I am fortune’s fool!” (3.1.98). The symbolism in the overhead shot of the Christ statue towering over Romeo and Tybalt as well as the score and mise-en-scene of the bad weather work to emphasize Romeo’s emotion and the theme of fate in the story. The film language and symbolism used by Baz Luhrmann throughout the film is consistent and successful in creating a more intense, emotional and potent rendition of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy.