Romeo and Juliet (1996) dir. Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Leonardo di Caprio, Claire Danes, Dash Mihok, Harold Perrineau, Brian Dennehy, Paul Sorvino, John Leguizamo
by Alan Bacchus
There’s nothing subtle about Baz Luhrmann’s hyper kinetic pop art rendition of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In fact there’s nothing subtle about the filmmaking of Baz Luhrmann in general. He manages to apply his unique staccato style of storytelling he demonstrated in Strictly Ballroom to William Shakespeare, a bold gesture which worked back in 1996 and still works today.
Resetting the tragic love story in the sun drenched Venice Beach, CA in a gang culture environment featuring comic book colours and ultra-hip pop music was like a sledgehammer to our heads. Not everything works perfectly in Luhrmann-land, but there’s enough visual and aesthetic innovation and a verve of energy it indeed elevates Shakespeare to another plane of melodramatic entertainment.
The colours, guns, music, hawaiian shirts is really just window dressing for the monumentally tragic core story of star-crossed lovers who together take their own lives in the name of love and war. The story is powerful in any medium, as literature, on stage, as dance, and on film through the eyes of say, Franco Zeffirelli or Baz Luhrmann.
The film’s high points are the opening act. The first 30 mins is a sprint. Before the story even starts Baz shows us a trailer for the movie we’re about to see. What?? We’re then thrown into a Sergio Leone-style standoff and shootout at a gas station, visualized with aggressive stylistic devices such as camera speed ramping, accentuated performances and sound effects, freeze frames and tight editing. These techniques combined with Shakespeare’s original loopy rhythmic dialogue is electrifying.
The Capulet party which the Montague boys, high on esctasy, crash continues the accelerated pace and heightend stylistic euphoria. Only after Romeo meets Juliet, in the wonderfully staged scene through the electric blue fish tank does the film slow down to catch its breath and engage us with the characters and conflict familiar to us in the play.
Leo and Claire make a fine romantic pairing. We feel the genuine love and passion between them, usually a tough sell considering the very quick courtship (a matter of days before they actually get married). The final moments where a combination of coincidence and unfortunate happenstance causes Romeo to take his life thinking Juliet has taken hers is still powerful, even if the art direction has about a 100 more candles in the church than it needs have.
But this is an over-the-top operatic world of melodrama. And so, in Baz Luhrmann’s church there’s a thousands candles and we accept it as so.
On Blu-Ray the film looks fantastic. Donald McAlpine’s saturated colours pop like never before. Leo has never been lit better than his beautifying star-making appearance in the film. Almost every shot seems to have him angling like a supermodel with a cigarette hanging from his mouth, backlit with a gorgeous sunset, or rimmed with a sharp white light making him look like an angel (with a Hawaiian shirt).
Romeo + Juliet is available Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment