Romeo + Juliet [DVD]
Screenplay : Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce (based on the play by William Shakespeare)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1996
Stars : Leonardo DiCaprio (Romeo Montague), Claire Danes (Juliet Capulet), John Leguizamo (Tybalt), Harold Perrineau (Mercutio), Pete Postlethwaite (Father Laurence), Paul Sorvino (Fulgencio Capulet)
Baz Luhrmann's updated version of William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet starts in high gear, pushes itself into overdrive, and eventually redlines and blows the engine long before its over. It's not that updating the Bard is a bad idea--it's been done successfully so many times before that it is literally de rigueur in the world of both theater and film, despite Luhrmann's claims that everyone is still staging Shakespeare like it's 1830. It's just that this film is too jam-packed and hyperkinetic for its own good. No movie screen can contain as much junk as Luhrmann wants to pound us with, even if we weren't trying to follow difficult poetic dialogue.
It's obvious what Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge) was trying to do--make the old-fashioned poetic grandeur of Romeo and Juliet accessible to the MTV generation. He keeps most of Shakespeare's dialogue intact, but he moves the action into a modern, punk setting called Verona Beach. It's a nonexistent world, mixing bits and pieces of Los Angeles, Miami, and Mexico City.
The cinematography by Donald McAlpine (The Time Machine) and the production design by Catherine Martin (who had worked previously with Luhrmann on Strictly Ballroom) are stunning and complex, but there's just too much of everything. Luhrmann wanted to take everything over the top, including the most eclectic soundtrack in film history (everything from punk rock to a children's choir). He incorporates hectic and sometimes confused editing along with trick camera techniques, but unfortunately these effects all too often call attention to themselves as cinematic devices, burying the story underneath. (Of course, it doesn't help that Romeo and Juliet, despite its cultural cachet, is not one Shakespeare's finest works, at least narratively speaking. After all, the whole "drinking a potion that makes you look like you're dead but you're really just asleep" twist is one of the great lame plot contrivances in all of English literature.)
The film opens with the clever idea of having the chorus be a television anchorwoman, relating the story of the two star-crossed lovers as if it were a tragic story on the six o'clock news. The movie quickly takes its first wrong step with an overblown fight between members of the rival Montague and Capulet families shooting it out at a gas station. Because Luhrmann expects that his audience members have either never read the original play or have forgotten it since it was forced on them in high school, he freezes the screen and uses titles to explain who and what everyone is. The gas station fight establishes most of the characters and background story, but it uses too much hyper editing and sped-up photography, making it both confusing and goofy. This scene sets the tone for the rest of the film, which after that rarely lets up.
While Luhrmann and company may have done too much behind the camera, there is little to complain about in front of it. In the two lead roles, Leonard DiCaprio and Claire Danes are magnificent. Although their ability to recite Shakespeare sometimes borders on amateurish, their unaffected presence is enough to overshadow their shortcomings, and in fact it lends an air of naturalism and authenticity to a story that is, after all, about repressed teenagers in love. Both are exceptional young actors who fill Romeo and Juliet's teenage shoes well.
Some of the other actors do not fare as well, especially John Leguizamo as Juliet's Latino cousin, Tybalt. Even more unnerving is Harold Perrineau as Mercutio, Romeo's friend, who is envisioned as an obnoxious drag queen. Brian Denehey shows up in the role of Lord Montague, but I can't remember him saying more than a few words. Paul Sorvino is effective as Juliet's father, and Pete Postlethwaite is especially good as Father Laurence, the monk who secretly marries Romeo and Juliet. Postlethwaite, so good as a wrongly imprisoned man in In the Name of the Father (1993), is the most natural with the Shakespearean dialogue, even though he looks a bit odd with a giant cross tattooed on his back.
Luhrman can thank DiCaprio and Danes for saving this film from his excesses. Without their fiery chemistry, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet would have been just an overdone, convoluted attempt to force a classic into rock video format. However, when they're on the screen, the film sparks and often ignites with real passion.
There is one scene in particular that strikes every chord perfectly and reminds us of what a good movie this could have been if Luhrmann hadn't overdone everything. It takes place early in the film at the Capulet costume ball when Romeo and Juliet first meet. They first spy each other on opposite sides of a giant fish tank, and the way they stare at each other is absolutely captivating. It is a moment of pure, mesmerizing intensity, with all the wonderment of first love blazing in their eyes. The scene goes on for several minutes, following Juliet as she dances with her suitor, Paris (Paul Rudd), but keeps her eyes on Romeo. By dropping all his funky pretenses and letting the scene play naturally, with shy glances, telling body language, and burning eyes, Luhrman allows it to be both sensual and gentle in its innocent romance.
I wish more of the film had been like this.
|William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet Special Edition DVD|
|Aspect Ratio||2.35:1 (Anamorphic)|
|Languages||English (5.1, 2.0), French (2.0)|
|Distributor||20th Century Fox Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||March 12, 2002|
| Anamorphic Widescreen (2.35:1)|
The THX-certified transfer on this DVD is excellent. The vibrant colors throughout are strong and well-saturated, and the image is nicely detailed and sharp. I have never seen this film in a pan-and-scan version, but it must look truly awful, considering how often Luhrmann places his characters at either end of the wide frame.
|Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English), Dolby 2.0 Surround (English, French)|
With its bombastic and eclectic selection of music, the 5.1-channel soundtrack is a kicker, with solid, heavy bass and good surround effects. The dialogue is nicely centered on the front soundstage, with the surround channels effectively employed for ambient noise and to expand the scope of the music. The various heightened sound effects--such as Tybalt grinding out a cigarette butt with his steel boot heel in the opening gun battle scene--are crystal clear and deeply resonant.
| Audio commentary by director Baz Luhrmann, cowriter Craig Pearce, cinematography Don McAlpine, and production designer Catherine Martin |
"We're here to help you understand the movie," they declare at the beginning of the commentary, and that is exactly what they do. Although I still argue that Romeo + Juliet is essentially overproduced, listening to this commentary offers a world of insight into the immense effort that went into realizing this project. It's a particularly insightful commentary because you get to hear from a wide range of perspectives (director, writer, production designer, cinematographer), all of whom are on the same wavelength (Luhrmann, Pearce, and Martin have worked together on all three of Luhrmann's films, and McApline also shot Moulin Rouge). It is also interesting listening to their ideas of how to update Shakespeare and the importance of imagery in clarifying his poetic dialogue for viewers not accustomed to such writing.
Marketing R + J
Copyright © 1997, 2002 James Kendrick