William Shakespeare’s Romeo – Juliet (1996) Review

In 1996 director Baz Luhrmann did something totally unthinkable. He dressed up William Shakespeare’s classic language in modern (or postmodern) environments. This is not the first time Shakespeare has been adapted to modern day. The Oscar-winning musical West Side Story was also adapted from the bard’s most famous play, Romeo and Juliet. However, where as West Side Story used modern language, Luhrmann’s version keeps Shakespeare’s original words.

The story has been told a thousand times, but never quite like this. The only children of two warring families fall desperately in love only to be destroyed by their families hate. Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio), the only son of the Montagues is desperately in love with Rosaline, but does not have her love in return. At the request of his friend Mercutio (Harold Perrineau Jr.), Romeo goes to a costume party thrown by his family’s sworn enemies, the Capulets. It is there Romeo meets the beautiful Juliet (Claire Danes) and they fall instantly in love even before the age of dating. There hearts are broken when they realize they supposed to be at war with one another (“My only love sprung from my only hate”). Love can not be contained, however, and Romeo risks his life to visit his Juliet. They are married in secret by Father Laurence (Pete Postlethwaite), but are ripped apart when Romeo is banished for killing Juliet’s cousin Tybalt (John Leguizamo). A desperate plan by Father Laurence is their only hope to be together, but disaster strikes when his message for Romeo goes astray.

This film was a huge departure for Shakespeare films. In an interview two years after the film was released, Baz Luhrmann stated that his goal was to get back to the bloody violence, bawdy humor and passionate romance that the Bard originally intended. He argues that when Shakespeare was writing these plays, he had to mix in a little of everything (drama, humor, action) so he could pack the theater every night. For example, he says if Shakespeare were making movies today, he might make There’s Something About Mary on the Titanic.

He sets the story in the not-so-distant future where everyone has a gun, dressing in drag is in fashion and holy men have crosses tattooed on their body. The Montagues and the Capulets are competing businesses, the Prince is the Chief of Police and the noble Paris (Paul Rudd) is Time Magazine’s Bachelor of the Year. One might argue that an environment like this and Shakespeare’s beautiful language would not mix, but Luhrmann manages to make it work. For instance, Romeo’s line just after he meets Juliet: “did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight, for I ne’er saw true beauty till this night” sounds as if it could have been written today. I have read the play four times and seen many movie adaptations, but not until this version did I truly appreciate that line. It is now my favorite Shakespeare line.

One might also think that the language might prove difficult for the actors, but they pull it off nicely. Leonardo DiCaprio proves–as he has many times–that he is more than a pretty face and Harold Perrineau Jr. goes all out as Mercutio. Above all shines Claire Danes who speaks the words as if she grew up speaking it. She also projects the wide-eyed innocence that the character needs. When she watches the fireworks from the balcony with the wings on her back, she truly is an angel.

It may not be the best film version of Romeo and Juliet (see Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 version), but it is very imaginative and highly entertaining. I give it a B+.

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