Romeo + Juliet (1996)

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*. Restraint? We don’t need any stinking restraint. The play’s first line (after the prologue) is bellowed from the back of a convertible by one of “the Montague boys”: “A dog of the house of Capulet moves me!” We’re not sure why he’s yelling this, who he’s talking to, or what it means. But it’s loud.

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*. The decibel level matches the loud visuals: the bright colours, jumpy editing, quick zooms, etc. It’s a way of inflating the drama of the language. It’s why Mercutio has to both scream and repeat his end of the Queen Mab speech (“This is she!”). And why Romeo has to scream and repeat (three times!) his line to Tybalt just before killing him (“Either thou or I, or both, must go with him!”). Yelling and repeating lines shows you how important they are.

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*. I don’t want to sound stuffy or hyper-critical on this point, but I do think it’s worth stressing. As explained on the DVD commentary “the whole motive of the entire project” was to use “modern-day equivalents to decode the language of Shakespeare.” Shakespeare’s “language is clarified because it’s articulated in familiar images.”
*. But is this true? I think the visuals, full of overripe, kitschy Catholic tat, simply overwhelm the language. Luhrmann has made a movie that is so strong visually it doesn’t need any dialogue. If you went through it with a modern audience and asked them to explain any of the trickier parts that have been retained from the text of the play I don’t see where the presentation would help them a bit. Luckily, Romeo and Juliet is not a terribly difficult play, but my point is that the difficulty in the language remains, it’s only that this doesn’t matter if the audience “gets it” by other means. They can follow along by reading other signs, or by observing what kind of a pose is being struck.

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*. The fact that the actors don’t seem that comfortable with Shakespeare doesn’t help. Again this may sound snobby, but the thing is, Shakespeare wasn’t a “story” man. He tended to borrow them from other sources and they didn’t always hold together that well. The language is what you come to Shakespeare for, especially one advertised as sticking to the original text. If you want a modern, music-video style romance there are plenty of other options at the local cineplex.
*. Of course the deal with any production of Shakespeare, on stage or screen, is how to make it seem contemporary and “relevant.” That’s not a huge problem, since Shakespeare was a popular entertainer, but there are a couple of hurdles. The first is the language, which is finessed in the way I’ve just discussed. The other relates to the updating of historical references.
*. Overall, I think the updating is quite successful and creative. I really liked the network news reading the prologue, Queen Mab turning into a tab of party drug, and M. Emmet Walsh in a sadly truncated version of the apothecary scene.

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*. Other aspects, however, are harder to handle. Calling the pistols “swords” made no sense to me, and I guess there was just no way of making the concept of banishment and exile relatable in a contemporary setting. Is there any jurisdiction where this is still practiced as a form of punishment? Apparently it gave Luhrmann a lot of heartache and he tried to cut any mention of it out entirely, but this made nonsense of the plot. Still, there was just no way to make it meaningful for a contemporary audience.
*. As with the visuals, the music is all over the map. I think if they’d stuck with one particular style it might have helped draw thing together better. Instead there are just bits and pieces of different songs in different arrangements and the sense I had was of a mess, with the snatch of Wagner at the end being a cliché.

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*. I don’t understand Luhrmann’s fascination with gay camp. Why make Mercutio (Harold Perrineau) a drag queen? Because, according to the commentary, he is the most poetic character, but also the angriest (pace Tybalt). Apparently queens are poetic, angry types. It’s weird, but I found it tired. And why are these characters so often Black? The fallout from Paris Is Burning? Chris Tucker as Ruby Rhod in The Fifth Element?
*. Some of the creative decisions are both bold and effective. I really like the hint of something going on between Lady Capulet and Tybalt, and the decision to have both Romeo and Juliet alive together at the end to address each other.
*. The cast has hits and misses, but again what works best is a look. Paul Sorvino as Mr. Capulet appears to be another angry homosexual, for whatever reason. John Leguizamo is feral and feline as the Prince of Cats. Pete Postlehtwaite seems to be having a hard time coming down off of some of his herbs, but he’s the only one who is at all at ease speaking Shakespeare’s language. I share Roger Ebert’s mystification at Brian Dennehy’s role as Mr. Montague. Does he have any lines at all?

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*. I think both DiCaprio and Dames are adorable, as they should be, but don’t show off any real acting chops here, or even any feel for the material.
*. What is it with Romeo’s drenched look? He seems to always appear dripping wet, from sticking his head in the sink just before his first seeing Juliet, getting in and out of the pool with his clothes on, or running around outside in the pouring rain. I think Luhrmann just liked seeing water dripping off of DiCaprio’s stylish locks. At one point in the commentary they are about to say something about the water imagery, but the discussion is immediately sidetracked and it never got addressed. I don’t recall it being part of the play at all.
*. Obviously a movie as hip and noisy as this was going to alienate traditionalists, and it did. I think it works a lot better than it should, all things considered. And I don’t think there’s any way of finally sorting out the good from the bad.

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30 thoughts on “Romeo + Juliet (1996)

      1. Alex Good Post author

        When do you feel burning? I recommend a first visit to your GP. Then a urologist. See, I can handle problems like this quickly.

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