Cert: 12 Runtime: 120 mins Director: Baz Lurhmann Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, John Leguizamo, Paul Rudd, Paul Sorvinio, Miriam Margolyes, Brian Denehey and Pete Postlewaite
Did my heart love ’til now? Forswear its sight. For I never saw true beauty ’til this night
I find it fairly amusing that the “official” title of this film is “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet”, everyone and their uncle knows who wrote it. Everyone and their uncle knows the story. Quite frankly, when I saw it, I was expecting to be bored. It had been played out, there’s only so much mileage you can get. And to me it wasn’t Hamlet or King Lear or Much Ado about Nothing which still could hold you enthralled just by a reading. “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet”? What else is new? Sure it’s genius, but now, quite simply, it was boring. But this isn’t simply Shakespeare’s movie, it’s Baz Luhrmann’s. So what is the plot you say (if you don’t know it you are dumb) Classic story of Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Juliet (Claire Danes), set in a modern-day city of Verona Beach. The Montagues and Capulets are two feuding families, whose children meet and fall in love. They have to hide their love from the world because they know that their parents will not allow them to be together. There are obstacles on the way, like Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt (John Leguizamo), and Romeo’s friend Mercutio (Harold Perrineau), and many fights. But although it is set in modern times, it is still the same timeless story of the “star crossed lovers”.
Where you might think a hip and slick take on a timeless story has been played out, it has elsewhere, but not here. Luhrmann infuses something into it. The film is at times bizarre and sinister, it’s intense, it’s rough and awkward, it’s colourful and crazy and over the top, it’s muted, it’s passion frenzy, it’s dry, it’s slick and sophisticated. It’s meticulous and strange and cold and white hot all at once. He shoves it all into Venice Beach and actors and those so very famous beautiful poetic lines and mixed with a complete and total disregard for convention. Like Moulin Rouge, there’s an obsession with details. But these are strange details. Guns with names, palaces and servants for these mafia-like characters, beaches and highways and gas stations as playgrounds for the characters. It’s a deformed and crazy Verona for ’96. The background is filled to the brim with every sort of lavish and extravagant window or bookshelf dressing or religious icon, flowers, car wheel caps, clothing styles, the way hedges are trimmed, and billboards. Nothing is left out. Luhrmann immerses you into another world, it’s 1996, but it’s not where we’re living. Thus we can relate to these people yet still accept this insanity. And that’s fitting, the world Shakespeare was evoking wasn’t his own secular society either, he was trying to strip it down to the human qualities of a story. That’s why a modern American plain accented actor speaking this complicated dialogue works. We’re allowed to believe that these people would talk like this. And the actors give it life and a palpability.
It’s excellently casted. They give every line with emotion, they act it out, using themselves, but realistically. Danes and Dicaprio are excellent. The various supports do great justice to their roles. It was a joy and a wonder to watch, to see what Shakespeare had intended, with good actors performing well on such a colourful and wacky stage. Above all the emotional power of the story, which can be beaten out during mandatory reading periods or a repeated session with a bland and average version again and again, remains firm. Especially during the last part of the film. There are no superfluous motions or gestures on the actors’ part. They act it to a tee. Baz leaves no emotion or possibility unturned. The blocking and directing gets the best out of the story. For example: Romeo walks through a dazzling and dark candlelit and flower and statue strewn chapel to find Juliet, and he weeps and weeps while saying his lines. This is the imagery and interpretation that flows throughout the movie.This is a movie that had a lot of effort and thought and heart and honesty put into it. It has a character and a charisma that I think is lacking in many films today. No one has ever seen the version Shakespeare envisioned, he doesn’t give staging or actor’s notes, he didn’t provide a cliffsnotes version. No one alive can pass down the directions to a performance Shakespeare was present at. Taking this into consideration, Luhrmann created a respectful yet completely unique and enlightening spin on a story that no matter how brilliant, can still get botched by poor translation. I think he extracted the essence of a timeless and beautiful story, and made something incredible. At least he finally made me appreciate it.