Romeo + Juliet (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In Looking for Richard, actor/director Al Pacino expresses his great hope for his film -- to extend his enthusiasm for the Bard's plays to a broader audience. In a very different way, that's what Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom) is attempting to do with this radical approach to "Romeo and Juliet". Luhrmann hasn't fashioned this motion picture with the stodgy, elitist Shakespeare "purist" in mind. Instead, by incorporating lively, modern imagery with a throbbing rock soundtrack and hip actors, he has taken aim at an audience that would normally regard Shakespeare as a chore to be endured in school, not a passionate drama to ignite the screen.

Make no mistake, this Romeo and Juliet isn't the match of Franco Zeffirelli's unforgettable 1968 classic. While Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes make an effective couple, their romance doesn't burn with the white-hot intensity of Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey's. Nevertheless, this interpretation is so fundamentally different from anything to have come before it that there's no danger of repetition. By the same token, there have been two different "Richard III"s in the past twelve months, and no one is complaining.

For those who aren't aware, "Romeo and Juliet" tells the tale of two "star-cross'd" teenage lovers who secretly fall for each other and marry. Their families, the Montagues and Capulets, have been fierce enemies for decades, and, even as Romeo and Juliet say their wedding vows, new violence breaks out between the clans. In the end, their love is doomed. When Romeo mistakenly believes Juliet is dead, he poisons himself. And, when Juliet discovers that he is dead, she too commits suicide.

Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet (properly titled William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet) takes the play and deposits it in a modern Verona Beach that is part decaying Miami and part Mexico City. By the director's own admission, this is a created world, borrowing aspects of its unique visual style from such diverse periods as the 1940s, 1970s, and 1990s, and using a variety of classic films (most notably Rebel Without a Cause) for inspiration. Fast cars with roaring engines replace horses. Guns stand in for swords and daggers. The resulting hybrid background is startling.

Romeo and Juliet's camera is restless, always moving. There are times when the rapid cuts and raging soundtrack might cause understandable confusion between the movie and a rock video. Indeed, with all the camera tricks, special effects (such as a roiling storm), and riotous splashes of color, it's easy to lose the story in the style. Luhrmann's intent was never to drown Shakespeare's dialogue in technique, but it happens, especially early in the film. In the process, the more subtle intangibles of the romance are irretrievably lost.

The movie settles down when Romeo (DiCaprio) and Juliet (Danes) first come face-to-face, gazing at each other through the transparent panes of an aquarium while a love ballad plays in the background. It's a delicately romantic moment whose magic is never quite matched by any other scene in the film. Danes makes a breathtaking Juliet, merging strength and fragility into one. DiCaprio isn't quite as successful as Romeo; there are times when his delivery of Shakespeare's dialogue sounds forced, and, on at least one occasion (when he learns about Juliet's supposed death), he goes way over-the-top.

The supporting cast has its share of successes and failures. John Leguizamo plays a particularly effective Tybalt, Juliet's Latino cousin. Despite a terrible accent, Miriam Margolyes gives a delightful interpretation of Juliet's nurse. In a daring move that works, Harold Perrineau's Mercutio is presented as a high-energy drag queen who gets a chance to strut his stuff to a disco tune with Shakespearean lyrics. Pete Postlethwaite (as Father Laurence) and Vondie Curtis-Hall (Captain Prince) are both at ease in their roles. Brian Dennehy's presence is, as always, imposing, but, as Lord Montague, he doesn't have more than a handful of lines. Less successful are Paul Sorvino's cartoon-like portrayal of Lord Capulet and Diane Verona's Blanche DuBois-flavored version of his wife. And a pair of characters, Paul Rudd's Paris and Jesse Bradford's Balthasar, are so ineffectual that they're virtually invisible.

There are moments of comedy in Shakespeare's play, and Luhrmann tries to transfer some of these over, in addition to adding a few of his own. One in particular, with Romeo ineptly scaling a trellis for the famous balcony sequence, is ill-placed. Also, there are times when the director gets a little too cute. A run-down theater in Verona is called "The Globe" (the name of the locale where Shakespeare's plays were originally performed), and the astute viewer will catch visual references to "The Merchant of Verona Beach", "Rozencranzky's", "Wherefore L'Amour", and "Out, Out Damn Spot Cleaners".

Ultimately, no matter how many innovative and unconventional flourishes it applies, the success of any adaptation of a Shakespeare play is determined by two factors: the competence of the director and the ability of the main cast members. Luhrmann, Danes, and DiCaprio place this Romeo and Juliet in capable hands. And, while such a loud, brash interpretation may not go down in cinematic history as the definitive version of the play, hopefully it will open a few eyes and widen the audience willing to venture into any movie bearing the credit "based on the play by William Shakespeare."

Now, bring on Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet...

Romeo + Juliet (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 1996-11-01
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1