1996: Looking Back At ROMEO + JULIET

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Tony falls in love again.

Romeo and Juliet is rightly seen as one of Shakespeare’s more dubious tragedies. Not only does its setting and the idea of two households who hate each other feel fusty and dated, the drama is driven by the fact that both the hero and heroine are motivated by a kind of clueless impulsiveness that, as teenagers have become more worldly, has become less believable. What’s more, it’s a play that snatches tragedy out of the jaws of romantic success. The convoluted plan to get them out of the city so they can continue their lives together actually works…and then one timing issue brings disaster to both houses. It’s often been said that Shakespeare’s tragedies and his comedies are essentially the same, except for one moment where something is discovered or not. That’s absolutely true in Romeo and Juliet, so its reputation as the grand avatar of all romances is deeply dubious. It’s actually a celebration of impulsive romance, young love and hot heads and hearts – and it becomes a warning against all these things, and against parents governing them too firmly, in its final moments.

Baz Luhrmann was an utterly bizarre choice of director to stamp a modern sensibility on this fusty old classic. His previous film, Strictly Ballroom, was a kind of Australian Saturday Night Fever, and there was no particular indication that he’d be able to tangle with the Bard and deliver an epoch-defining version of a story everybody knew, but only (and perversely) real romantics particularly loved.

But from the opening monologue and montage, what Luhrmann does is utterly remarkable. In an attempt to stay entirely true to the text, he doesn’t dodge the necessity of an initial prologue, but instead has it read on a TV screen by a newsreader, in which context, it makes an enormous amount of sense – certainly more than it would if it had been delivered in any kind of traditional way before having us zoom in to the action. Following that TV announcement, what we get is a visual immersion in the world of Luhrmann’s Verona (Beach), like a trailer for the movie you’re about to see, with Pete Postlethwaite’s Padre adding more background by voice-over, while the interpretation of the Montague-Capulet feud is brilliantly, clearly set in our minds: two business-and-crime bosses, their rival buildings, their rival empires being family-based. Characters defined on-screen as though on a 70s cop show, the ‘Prince’ being the police captain who has to deal with these families when their feud spills into violence. It’s all an enormously efficient way of getting one central message across – this ain’t your schoolroom Shakespeare. This is gang violence, guns for swords, Crips and Bloods with added Godfather-like high tension between the two families. It blows the fustiness off the concept and brings the Montagues and Capulets right up to date.

What’s more, Luhrmann shows a steady but hugely inventive hand when it comes to some of the most challenging sequences in the play to really make relevant, to connect with audiences – the initial duel scene between the Montague and Capulet ‘boys’ is, when you read it on the page, more than a little long-winded, but by giving a very vivid visual style to each group, he coaxes from his actors a way of delivering the duel-dialogue that makes modern sense without at any point changing the language to our modern parlance. In the scene leading up to and including the death of Mercutio (played with a movie-stealing freshness and verve by Harold Perinneau) too, there’s a steady hand at play, bringing the genuine emotional flow to bear in a way that’s instantly understandable even by those who would traditionally have trouble with the Shakespearean language.

Luhrmann’s choice of shots and angles throughout the film always – but always – looks deliberate. There’s not a second of the film that looks like he’s thought ‘That’ll do,’ or that does only one thing. His use of music too is indicative of a mid-to-late 90s trend for interweaving a soundtrack that heightens the drama and the emotional beats of the underlying story, as we’ve seen with some other great movies from 1996, such as Trainspotting and From Dusk Till Dawn. Luhrmann would go on of course to deliver the glorious burlesque of musical romance that was Moulin Rouge, re-recording modern songs in a way that worked as a musical, and there are certainly the first stirrings of that in Romeo + Juliet, but here he’s absolutely measured, beat for beat, using the music to highlight or propel the storytelling.

Ultimately though, the story of Romeo and Juliet succeeds or fails on the choice of your two leads. The natures of the characters are all there in the Shakespeare. Romeo is a serial romantic, and every time he falls in love, it’s as though he’s never felt this way before – he will write sonnets, sing songs, forswear the world, all for his new true love. In other words, he’s a dangerous young fool, a liar to himself and others, and other maids have either paid the price of believing him, in terms of their ‘virtue,’ or, with this reputation, have told him to go and jump in the lake. He is a young, young man, a chancer, a creature of fire and passion.

Juliet is actually his opposite, a young girl too shielded from the world, being introduced to this cousin or that as a potential husband, bored with them all, but too unaware of the falsehoods of flatterers. When Romeo’s hot passionate words (added to his hot passionate form) are laid at her door, she believes them true, and never spoken to anyone else, and her head is spun entirely. She loves him utterly in the moment of his swearing his love for her, and it’s perhaps notable that Romeo and Juliet would have been a bigger, grander tragedy had the two succeeded in escaping their families and then tried to settle down together.

The two leads in Luhrmann’s version were chosen with a significant eye for talent, but more specifically for an ability to tap into the core of these very specific characters. Claire Danes, previously of My So-Called Life, had an innocence about her that allowed Juliet to come across as being clueless of the world, yet quite up for adventure with the right man, and only in the context of true love. In other words, she balanced a natural teenage curiosity and sense of fun with Juliet’s sheltered upbringing, to give us a heroine very close to Shakespeare’s intention – someone who could be swept away by sudden faith, led by heat and passion and not a little by the desire to buck the expectations of her family.

Leonardo DiCaprio had done solid work in the likes of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, but clearly Luhrmann saw him as a future leading man, though still young enough to balance Romeo’s passion with his self-delusion every time he falls in love. Again, the fundamental youth, the ability to convince themselves of things that older heads would dismiss, or at least think twice about, is crucial not only to making the characters of Romeo and Juliet interesting, but also to delivering the story in a way which actually makes sense. Without that quality of youth and delusion, it just reads as people falling in love and being entirely contrary. It’s also in their youth, in that sweeping, grand, optimistic energy of youth, that the lesson for parents is hammered home, because of the conclusions their young love drives them to.

Danes and DiCaprio may not have got on during the production (Danes found her co-star to be needlessly immature), but on-screen, they have a chemistry that while it would be rather more awkward in a modern story, works absolutely to translate the energy of Shakespeare’s original, through the intense, scary, beautiful visuals and vibe of Luhrmann’s Verona Beach, to punch the viewer in the face with the seeming impossibility of their love, and their unshakeable young conviction that that love can conquer everything, even the world of their family’s hatreds.

What you end up with, watching Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, is Shakespeare like you’ve never seen it before, Shakespeare with a thoroughly modern visual sense and – which is more important – Shakespeare with characters who, though speaking only Elizabethan words, can make you feel the fundamental emotional flow that the author intended to convey – the youth, the hope, the passion, the self-delusion, the anger and the joy, and ultimately the hopelessness of their mutual suicides.

Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet stands the test of time, and brushes away more recent attempts to re-tell the story, stamping the authority of Luhrmann’s vision on the imagination of cinemagoers worldwide, bringing Shakespeare screaming up to date in a way relevant to many urban teenagers, and convincing the world for the first time that that DiCaprio chappie could handle leading roles.

Spin it again today and get lost in love.

Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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