I am rarely a fan of setting a Shakespeare play in modern times. Often, the language sounds so discordant against blue jeans and cars that I find myself longing for men in tights and swords. Occasionally, however, a director is able to find a way to make the thees and thous work with jeans and cars. Baz Luhrmann did just that.
Watch any Luhrmann film and you know what you’re going to get — an almost always tragic love story set against OTT sets and costumes, scored with new covers of songs we all know. If I look at the Shakespeare canon, Romeo and Juliet is the obvious choice for this director.
Right from the start, Luhrmann shows us the world in which we will spend the next two hours. He gives the opening speech to a news reporter who reads the Shakespearean words as though she were reading a teleprompter. This morphs into a full on assault of the senses, making sure we understand that Verona is a dangerous place where scary things happen.
It is the optics of this movie that make it work. Luhrmann takes the concepts of love, hate, power, prejudice, and youth and turns them into a visual feast. Verona is a crazy place, run by crazy people with guns. It is frenetic, soulless, and bleak.
In contrast, the Capulet home is a place of refuge. It is beautiful, quiet, and calm. Until an adolescent girl defies her parents. Then, it too becomes violent and ugly.
Luhrmann never strays from the language of the play, a choice that becomes the film’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. The language of the play is beautiful and, like this movie, full of imagery. It would be difficult to top it. Luhrmann understands this and allows the words to co-exist with all the action, the color, the spectacle.
The problem is that Shakespeare's language is very difficult to say without sounding as though one is reading a poem, or worse, one doesn’t really understand what s/he is saying. Claire Danes and Leonard DiCaprio are very pretty and they have an enormous amount of chemistry, but they just can’t pull off the language. To be fair, neither can the vast majority of the supporting characters.
On some level, Luhrmann understands this and, to cover, has many of his actors shout their dialogue. Or, the dialogue is hidden within music, action sequences, or beautiful shots of beautiful people.
This problem is forgivable because this movie is, finally, not about the language. It is about drawing us into a world in which two very young kids would decide that killing themselves is the best plan of action. Because of the way Verona has been depicted, we believe it.
The two kids in this version are very good. DiCaprio and Danes are both young enough that we believe this is their first love. The “balcony” scene, translated into both of them in the pool, is gorgeous to watch, affecting, and sexy. It feels real. The throes of first love, indeed any love in the early stages, is physical. It’s all about the kissing and the sex and Luhrmann captures that heat perfectly.
Luhrmann took risks making this movie, many of which worked. It is impossible to take it seriously, but that’s all right. It is not meant to be your father’s Shakespeare. It is meant to show a new generation that some stories are timeless, even if the language sounds odd to their ears. I am a purist. I love it.
ChrisB is a freelance writer who spends more time than she ought in front of a television screen or with a book in her hand.