Saturday, January 22, 2005

Romeo + Juliet

Romeo + Juliet
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
1996, Rated PG-13
5 stars

The name “Shakespeare” tends to conjure either images of ridiculous costumes and unfathomable language or memories of tedious hours spent in school, struggling through the “thee’s” and “thou’s” of some unnecessarily monotonous play like Julius Caesar. When confronted with a Shakespearian work, many cringe at the antiquated language of the Elizabethan era. It is mainly due to this that many do not enjoy Shakespeare, and in some cases avoid it at all costs. Director Baz Luhrmann, however, in his adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most famous and adored plays, breaks through this language barrier to bring forth the true essence of this celebrated tragedy. Romeo + Juliet takes place in a modern setting, while still maintaining the original wording of Shakespeare. While other directors have attempted this feat with severely disappointing results—such as the recent remake of Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke—Baz Luhrmann has managed to create a masterpiece of art and cinema which effectively renders the language of Shakespeare completely comprehensible. Even though the dialogue is of a different time, the meaning still shines through.

Cinematographically, this movie is beautifully done. Luhrmann uses color and background action to create a wonderful montage that blends the old with the new. The opening sequence is the perfect example of this, where, as in the real play, a prologue is given. Luhrmann handles this by creating a mixture of news footage and flashes of action, while using the original Shakespearean dialogue. While at first it may seem strange to hear Shakespeare but see modern action, this opening assuages all fears, and in the first fifteen seconds the audience realizes that although this is Shakespeare, it can be understood. In this film, Luhrmann has done an excellent job molding the old and the new, not just with the dialogue, but with the settings and characters as well. In the bustling metropolis of Verona, where we lay our scene, huge corporate skyscrapers surround ancient cathedrals. Luhrmann turns the two dueling families, the Montagues and the Capulets, into two corporate rivals, to fit better with the modern times. Even the introduction of characters blends the Shakespearean with the modern American. When Luhrmann introduces the two rival gangs from the different houses, for example, the audience immediately understands their opposing personalities by Luhrmann’s use of costume, music, and action. While the Montague boys are rowdy and playful, an image helped by their upbeat, raucous music, the Capulets are serious and sinister, accompanied by cold, menacing harmonies. This is also shown in the fight scenes between the two gangs, which, besides setting the characters, give excellent action to the film, complemented by a western-shootout-esque score. The Shakespearean sword fights have been replaced by shootouts, using guns with “Sword 9mm,” “Dagger,” and “Long Sword” written down the sides. The allusion to the Elizabethan weapons continues as the characters are rarely seen without their guns at their sides, just as a man of importance in the 17th century would rarely be seen without his sword. Luhrmann goes further to use costumes to set the tones for the different scenes of the films. As in his other works, color plays a major role. In the first half of the film, with happy, upbeat music and bright, cheerful lighting, the brilliant colors give a positive and upbeat feel to the scenes. As the mood of the film darkens, however, so does the music and lighting, and the colors which once seemed so jovial now appear garish, serving as a kind of mockery to the lightheartedness of before.

Luhrmann has also assembled the perfect cast for his film. The skill of these actors is the main key to this movie, because it is up to them to make the prose seem natural—and they do, exceptionally well. The best of them all, surprisingly, is Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo. DiCaprio fits into this role perfectly, and Shakespeare’s words roll out in a seamless stream, filled with emotion, and completely in line with his character. DiCaprio’s acting in this film is flawless. His young good looks and boyish complexion make the ideal Romeo, and the emotions he’s able to convey through his actions and facial expressions are phenomenal. He handles Romeo’s temperament expertly, from pensive moodiness to giddy joy, utter astonishment to excruciating pain, DiCaprio shows it all and more, and lets the audience feel it as well. He is equally balanced by Claire Danes’ wonderfully innocent Juliet. As with DiCaprio’s Romeo, Danes fits into her role flawlessly. Her flowing soliloquies are delicate and sweet, and provide an excellent contrast for her helpless desperation later on. DiCaprio and Danes make the perfect pair of young lovers, and carry the difficult dialogue so naturally, it’s easy to forget that it’s Shakespeare. While these two flow together superbly, another pair clashes fantastically. John Leguizamo, as Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, and Harold Perrineau, as Romeo’s best friend Mercutio, make magnificent enemies. Their characters conflict as opposites, with Leguizamo making an excellently evil villain and Perrineau as a fun-loving party god. As with DiCaprio, Perrineau is able to capture the subtle moods and facial expressions of his character, and his “Queen Mab” speech is one of the most memorable parts of the film, if perhaps a bit hard to follow. Other more minor characters complete the film, with Dash Mihok as Romeo’s cousin Benvolio, the hilariously self-absorbed Diane Venora as Juliet’s mother Gloria Capulet, and a splendid performance by Pete Postlethwaite as the Father Laurence.

In every respect this movie is a masterpiece. Through artful cinematography, excellent techniques for blending the past and the present, and superb acting, Luhrmann has created a wonderfully deep, moving, and brilliantly Shakespearean film, perfect as an introduction to Shakespeare, or simply for fantastic entertainment. So don’t avoid it just because it’s Shakespeare. After all, what’s in a name?

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