The Good: Great story, Decent chemistry, Most of the acting, Moments of direction
The Bad: Most of the direction
The Basics: A modern recasting of William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet is creative and accurate, but unfortunately cut more often than not.
Tonight, perusing my wife’s DVD collection for a new (to me) film to watch, I came upon William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. My wife enthusiastically urged me to put in the film and I was in a Shakespeare mood, so I eagerly complied. Generally, I am glad I did.
That said, I have no inherent issue with modern interpretations of Shakespeare, but Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet does not quite land it for me the way it does for my wife. In the case of William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, all that really has been changed is that the film is set in modern Verona Beach and a few contemporary songs have been thrown in. The language is Shakespeare’s (for the most part) and the story is the classic Shakespeare play adapted to use the full scope of the screen well. Unfortunately, the directing is erratic at best and some of the acting is not all it ought to be.
In Verona Beach, the Montagues and the Capulets are warring families, gangs essentially. After a fight at a gas station, Benvolio reports back to the head of the Montague family, who is preoccupied with thoughts of his son, Romeo. Romeo, brooding young man that he is, is not eager to engage in the family war and is actually more interested in love. When Mercutio invites Romeo to a Capulet-thrown party, he goes, but without any real enthusiasm. At the party, however, he falls in love with Juliet upon first gazing upon her (through an aquarium) and she is taken with him, despite her mother trying to set him up with Dave Paris.
Following the party, Romeo and Juliet reunite, flirt, and confirm their love for one another. After a secret wedding, a fight breaks out in which Mercutio is killed and in anger, after being much provoked, Romeo kills Tybalt. This earns Romeo banishment from Verona Beach and with him gone, Juliet’s mother pushes her to marry Paris. But with the help of Juliet’s nurse and Father Laurence, Romeo and Juliet make plans to reunite and run away together, before all those plans lead to inevitable tragedy.
William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet is not Franco Zeffirelli’s interpretation of Romeo And Juliet (that was the cinematic version of the story I was raised on and remains a pretty true – literal – interpretation of Shakespeare’s play) and for all the risks it takes – with guns and street fighting – it is pretty tame. In fact, there are only two real strikes against it.
The first is Baz Luhrmann’s direction. The creativity – Mercutio in drag is fine, using televisions for the narrators, etc. – is enviable, though the color palate in the first half of the film is garish. Baz Luhrmann is creative and the creativity stands on its own, for the most part. The issue, though, is with the direction. Luhrmann has created an erratic film. William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet starts lit in bright colors, flamboyant and comical performances, and cuts made so manically that it is almost nauseating. The moment Romeo and Juliet spy one another through the fish tank, the film’s direction changes. The cuts are – blissfully – more static from that point on, the exception being the fight sequence that costs Mercutio his life. The film is still artful, but it looks much more professional and does not rely upon the shock of “modernized Shakespeare” the way the opening half does. Luhrmann also appears to think his audience is idiotic in that he repeats sections, most notably the opening monologue, multiple times as if it were not clear by the words and images he puts on screen.
The only other issue is with the performance of Claire Danes. Danes has been fabulous in each and every other thing I have seen her in, but in William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet she is more often than not stiff or tentative and she stood out at several key moments, especially when playing off Miriam Margolyes (the Nurse). That said, she and Leonardo DiCaprio (Romeo) have great on-screen chemistry. From the moment they first appear on screen together, their chemistry is entirely convincing and enjoyable to watch. They portray young love perfectly.
On DVD, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet features a commentary track and galleries of production artwork. There are also music videos for some of the music works in the film. William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet is good, but not extraordinary; it takes the incredible poetic lines of Shakespeare and assembles them in an erratically-executed fashion.
For other films based on (or about) Shakespeare’s works, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Shakespeare In Love
For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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