3.5 out of 5 stars

The performances are consistently strong, the photography full of life and colour, the music is imaginatively chosen, and there’s even the odd good line from some guy called Will Shakespeare who wrote the first draft of the screenplay. But what hits home most in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (or William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet) is evident from the first moments, when all that’s shown is a small television screen in the middle of frame.

A newscaster begins: “Two households, both alike in dignity…” and although it’s the Prologue to the Shakespeare play, not the breathless journalism of some local hack, she manages to make it sound exactly like the latter. “From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean,” she continues, and the delivery is absolutely perfect, in that over-inflected style favoured by US news anchors. In the background is a “Star-Cross’d Lovers” logo.

This is the most consistent source of delight in Luhrmann’s movie: the way he sticks so close to Shakespeare yet manages to update the Bard’s play so thoroughly, not just in the central conceit of relocating it to a more-or-less modern, vaguely Californian “Verona Beach” (in reality mostly Mexico) but in dozens upon dozens of tiny details as well.

Certainly, the Shakespeare is pretty much all there—despite some textual differences, notably changes to a few character names and the removal of Friar John, not to mention the cheeky substitution of “+” for “and” in the title. But there are also huge signs of the warring Capulet and Montague families atop adjacent skyscrapers revealed early on by clearing smoke; so is a gun brand called Rapier. The references, many just sitting in the background waiting for those lucky enough to observe them, aren’t limited to R+J either: Luhrmann gives us the Shylock Bank (The Merchant of Venice), the Out Damn Spot dry cleaner (Macbeth). “Experience is by industry achieved”, from The Two Gentlemen of Verona, appears on a Capulet corporate poster.

Equal creativity goes into the repurposing of Shakespeare’s R+J dialogue to give it a modern dimension: “Throw your mistemper’d weapons to the ground” blares from a police helicopter. If it wasn’t so very, very well done it would be awkward and get in the way of the familiar central tale—the fierce rivalry between their families which dooms the love of young Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Juliet (Claire Danes)—but the glory of Luhrmann’s film is that it never does.

A side effect of this is that, unlike in most Shakespeare, Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet isn’t all about the actors; the reimagining of the context, and its manifestation in production design, are perhaps the real stars here. Despite the director’s own theatrical background as an actor, his movies are filmmaker’s films, not actors’ ones, and Romeo + Juliet falls very much into the stylised, non-realistic, image-led aesthetic of the other two in his so-called ‘Red Curtain Trilogy’—Strictly Ballroom (1992) and Moulin Rouge! (2001).

Even so, Luhrmann assembles a terrific cast of young stars and older character performers who rarely disappoint. As Variety noted it’s “the very rare Shakespeare film not dominated by British-trained theater actors”, and their delivery of Shakespeare almost always manages to sound as if it belongs in Luhrmann’s Verona Beach. Indeed, shortly after Mercutio dies, Romeo repeats his “either thou, or I” line three times to powerful effect without it seeming contrived.

The artificiality can occasionally poke through at stiller moments, but when the screen is full of movement (for example in sequences like the duel and death of Mercutio immediately preceding that line), there’s more to distract us from the dissonance between 16th-century language and a 20th-century setting.

Luhrmann also wisely refrains from giving the play’s most famous moments too much emphasis. Much-quoted lines (notably “But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?”) are often treated like any other; in the balcony scene, there’s only a minor part for a balcony, with the bulk of it taking place in and around a swimming pool. (This scene is perhaps slightly marred by the score’s underlining of its emotional import, which DiCaprio and Danes don’t really need.) 

DiCaprio is in full-on Titanic (1997) soulful scamp mode, but it’s not inappropriate for Romeo, and he has good chemistry with Danes’ Juliet. Their first meeting, the two gazing at one another through a huge fish tank, is sweet and beautifully executed.So is their first kiss (“My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand…”), with DiCaprio earnest and Danes more amused.

He works well with Dash Mihok as Benvolio, too, the latter mixing bluster and fear very convincingly in his portrayal of Romeo’s cousin. John Leguizamo almost steals scenes as Tybalt, at first icily threatening, later giving in to uncontrolled fury; Harold Perrineau (Lost) certainly does as Mercutio from the moment he appears in drag at a fancy dress party. His Queen Mab speech is magnetic and disturbing.

In more minor parts Pete Postlethwaite as Father Laurence (Shakespeare’s Friar Laurence) is, unsurprisingly, a little more classical in approach but delivers a memorable character (especially in his long speech on “herbs, plants, stones, and their true qualities”) with a good sense of humour.

Comic relief is also provided by Miriam Margolyes as Nurse and, often, by Paul Sorvino as a Tony Soprano-ish father for Juliet. Vondie Curtis-Hall as Prince Escalus becomes local police chief Captain Prince, and the reinvention is inspired. When he asks “where are the vile beginners of this fray?” it seems a completely normal thing for an angry police chief to demand.

Just occasionally there’s a postmodern touch too far; Spaghetti Western references early on are later themselves parodied in Mercutio and Benvolio’s discussion of Tybalt, and the film risks tipping itself off its knife-edge of credibility. But the perfectionist Luhrmann mostly avoids this and, for all that he has fun around the edges of Shakespeare, he respects the central narrative too much to let the knowing playfulness take over.

An eclectic choice of music, ranging from Des’ree and Butthole Surfers to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and a Mozart symphony (used to comic-opera effect for a long sequence at the Capulet mansion), also adds to the fun without getting in the way. Radiohead contributed an original song for the end credits, Exit Music (For A Film).

Heavily marketed to young audiences, Romeo + Juliet was a major box office attraction; DiCaprio and Luhrmann won major awards at Berlin (though it was sadly overlooked at the Academy Awards); and for the Australian director it marked the beginning of a long association with 20th Century Fox (which reputedly had shelved another, presumably straighter, Romeo + Juliet project starring Ethan Hawke in order to back Luhrmann’s vision).

Critical reception was mixed, with Roger Ebert being one of the most scathing critics: “I have never seen anything remotely approaching the mess that the new punk version of Romeo + Juliet makes of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The desperation with which it tries to ‘update’ the play and make it ‘relevant’ is greatly depressing… the movie lacks the nerve to cut entirely adrift from its literary roots, and grows badly confused as a result.”

Such responses weren’t uncommon at the time, and seem to have been prompted more by the gaudy, superficial nature of the world Luhrmann created for Romeo + Juliet than by the idea of setting Shakespeare in modern times; after all, few had had the same reaction to Richard Loncraine’s version of Richard III (1995), starring Ian McKellen as a 1930s fascist Richard, only the previous year.

But Romeo + Juliet confirms that plays can be successfully relocated a very long way in time, space, and medium from the Globe Theatre. Indeed, Luhrmann himself had previously devised a Hindu production of Benjamin Britten’s opera of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare at third hand, and many critics were more welcoming.

In The New York Times, Janet Maslin considered Luhrmann’s Romeo “a witty and sometimes successful experiment, an attempt to reinvent Romeo and Juliet in the hyperkinetic vocabulary of post-modern kitsch… this film’s young lovers, played radiantly by Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio, have the requisite magic and speak their lines with passionate conviction.”

She was not without misgivings, but felt the film largely carried off Luhrmann’s concept despite them—“eventually switching gears too often and sinking under the weight of its random excesses, Romeo and Juliet still sustains a remarkable amount of fire”—and Variety’s critic agreed, calling it “simultaneously striking and silly, boldly elaborated and unconvincing, imaginative and misguided. Even when the wild stylings, obvious notions and shrill performances don’t work, which is often, the sheer confidence… makes an undeniable impression. As irritating and glib as some of it may be, there is indisputably a strong vision here that has been worked out in considerable detail.”

Romeo + Juliet ends as it begins, with a newscast. “A glooming peace this morning with it brings,” the presenter intones. “The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head.” And perhaps it’s Luhrmann’s biggest achievement that this no longer sounds like the Shakespeare we studied at school, but like something a newscaster would declaim in gritty, corrupt Verona Beach following yet more fatalities in the long-running Capulet-Montague rivalry. It may not be to everybody’s taste, but his film brings the play alive with undeniable, startling freshness and conviction.

USA | 1996 | 120 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: Baz Luhrmann.
writers: Craig Pearce & Baz Luhrmann (adapted from the play by William Shakespeare).
starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, John Leguizamo, Harold Perrineau & Pete Postlethwaite.