Film Review: Romeo + Juliet (1996)

“Now, the two hours’ traffic of our stage”

One of the more famous cinematic adaptations of any of Shakespeare’s plays has to be Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Verona becomes Verona Beach, a palm-fringed ocean-front suburb of LA or maybe Miami, where guns rule the roost with an almost-Western-like abandon, newsreaders recite prologues as news broadcasts on the latest violence to shatter the peace, and the world is full of the raucous vividness that is now more common to us given Luhrmann’s subsequent career. 

So Mercutio is a black drag queen, Queen Mab is a tab of Ecstasy, the balcony scene takes place in a swimming pool, Paris (a youthful Paul Rudd) is Time(ly) Magazine’s Bachelor of the Year etc etc It’s brashly, breathlessly modern and consequently quite divisive. Purists will baulk at the dramatic liberties taken – there’s a dizzying rearrangement of Montagues and Capulets which takes a little getting used to – and the verse speaking is certainly rough around the edges for the most part.

But crucially, our Romeo and our Juliet feel just right with all their water-heavy symbolism here. A pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio is all unaffected youthful swagger and broodiness and Claire Danes is a deeply thoughtful and well-considered teenager, young but yearning for more and deeply affecting with it. As Shakespeare for the MTV generation, they pretty much nail it, even down to the tinkered-with ending which has a distressing quality I had completely forgotten.

I’d also forgotten how good the soundtrack was, the album becoming a mainstay on my CD player without really considering the film and so it was a nice trip down memory lane to revisit the likes of The Cardigans, The Wannadies, Garbage and Des’ree. Quality British thespian support comes from Miriam Margolyes’ Nurse and Pete Postlethwaite’s Father Lawrence and it’s to their credit that they don’t put their colleagues to shame. 

For even when this Romeo + Juliet is too much, it is still exhilaratingly irreverent fun, inventive beyond belief as Shakespeare gets highly stylised and stuffed with self-referential humour (the pool house is called The Globe Theatre, Lawrence drinks ‘Prospero’s Whisky’ and uses the ‘Post Haste’ postal service…). And if any of the Bard’s plays are going to be this youthful and sexy and passionate and energetic, then this is as good a choice as any.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *