William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet
Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, Brian Dennehy, John Leguizamo, Pete Postlethwaite, Paul Sorvino, Diane Venora, Harold Perrineau, Jesse Bradford, Christina Pickles, Miriam Margolyes, M. Emmet Walsh, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Paul Rudd. (1996, PG-13, 121 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 1, 1996
Park your preconceptions at the door before entering. Overhyped as the newest thing in youth culture retro-vogue, Baz Luhrmann's new film adaptation of William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet seems positioned to slip one past the Shakespeare purists and art aesthetes while building a base of support among the newbie MTV generation of star-crossed teens in love. If so, what a self-limiting miscalculation. For Luhrmann's rendition is not so much a reconceptualization as a recontextualization of the 400-year-old play. To begin with, the film's language remains all Shakespeare's, although it's spoken with decidedly American accents by actors who, for the most part, are more schooled in the ways of Hollywood than Stratford-upon-Avon. The film's setting is the mythical Florida town of Verona Beach, a surreal seaside melting pot of seedy decay and opulent extravagance. The movie's appearance might more accurately be termed modern than contemporary, a stylized fabrication that defies the specifics of any one decade or locale. This Romeo & Juliet is a rich visual feast, besotted with the fervor of its acrobatic camerawork and kinetic staging and its mind-bending aggregation of unrelated but resonant fragments of 20th century iconography. It is a Shakespearean work thoroughly conceived for the screen (itself a modern mode of storytelling) and for an audience unfamiliar and/or impatient with the Bard's Elizabethan trappings. The story is conveyed through the strength of its images; their easy familiarity grounds the Shakespearean language in a readily understandable context for modern viewers. From the movie's opening and closing images of a television screen from which a Shakespearean chorus in the guise of a TV news anchorwoman relates the “facts” of the star-crossed lovers' timeless tragedy, Romeo & Juliet is awash in a sumptuous assortment of iconography. The Montague gang wear Hawaiian shirts and beach shorts, the Capulets sport a more tailored Latino Miami Vice kind of look, the angels and sacred hearts of Catholic iconography are everywhere, billboard advertising slogans slyly wink at the text, the gang showdowns owe as much to Rebel Without a Cause and Spaghetti Westerns as they do to Shakespeare, Mercutio (Perrineau) is a big black drag queen, Lady Capulet (Venora) a Southern belle, and so on. The film even borrows from Shakespeare himself. A beachfront refreshment stand is called Rosencrantzy's, the Old Globe is an abandoned movie theatre, and the Merchants of Verona ply their wares. Baz Luhrmann, whose only other film credit is the delightful and surprising little Australian hit of 1992, Strictly Ballroom, has earned a place in the upper ranks of great film stylists and storytellers. Assisting in achieving that vision is the work of production designer Catherine Martin, who also worked with Luhrmann on Strictly Ballroom. In terms of sheer spectacle, I can hardly think of another work this year that compares with Romeo & Juliet. Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes once again prove that they are two of the best actors of their generation. And William Shakespeare has once more demonstrated that he is a storyteller for all time.