I've seen Shakespeare done in drag. I've seen Richard III as a Nazi. I've seen “The Tempest” as science fiction and as a Greek travelogue. I've seen Prince Hal and Falstaff as homosexuals in Portland. I've seen “King Lear” as a samurai drama and “Macbeth” as a Mafia story, and two different “Romeo and Juliets” about ethnic difficulties in Manhattan (“West Side Story” and “China Girl”), but I have never seen anything remotely approaching the mess that the new punk version of “Romeo & Juliet” makes of Shakespeare's tragedy.
The desperation with which it tries to “update” the play and make it “relevant” is greatly depressing. In one grand but doomed gesture, writer-director Baz Luhrmann has made a film that (a) will dismay any lover of Shakespeare, and (b) bore anyone lured into the theater by promise of gang wars, MTV-style. This production was a very bad idea.
It begins with a TV anchor reporting on the deaths of Romeo and Juliet while the logo “Star Crossed Lovers” floats above her shoulder. We see newspaper headlines (the local paper is named “Verona Today”). There is a fast montage identifying the leading characters, and showing the city of Verona Beach dominated by two towering skyscrapers, topped with neon signs reading “Montague” and “Capulet.” And then we're plunged into a turf battle between the Montague Boys (one has “Montague” tattooed across the back of his scalp) and the Capulet Boys. When, in an early line of dialog, the word “swords” is used, we get a closeup of a Sword-brand handgun.
If the whole movie had been done in the breakneck, in-your-face style of the opening scenes, it wouldn't be Shakespeare, but at least it would have been something. But the movie lacks the nerve to cut entirely adrift from its literary roots, and grows badly confused as a result. The music is a clue. The sound track has rock, Latin and punk music, a children's choir, and a production number, but the balcony scene and a lot of the later stuff is scored for lush strings (and not scored well, either; this is Mantovani-land, a dim contrast to Nino Rota's great music for the Zeffirelli “Romeo and Juliet” in 1968).
Much of the dialogue is shouted unintelligibly, while the rest is recited dutifully, as in a high school production. Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes are talented and appealing young actors, but they're in over their heads here. There is a way to speak Shakespeare's language so that it can be heard and understood, and they have not mastered it.
The only actors in the film who seem completely at home, indeed, are Pete Postlethwaite, as Father Laurence, and Miriam Margolyes, as the Nurse. They know the words and the rhythm, the meaning and the music, and when they say something, we know what they've said. The other actors seem clueless, and Shakespeare's lines are either screamed or get all mushy. (Brian Dennehy, as Romeo's father “Ted Montague,” would have been able to handle Shakespeare, but as nearly as I can recall he speaks not a single word in the entire movie--a victim, perhaps, of trims in post-production.) Not that there is much Shakespeare to be declaimed. The movie takes a “Shakespeare's greatest hits” approach, giving us about as much of the original as we'd find in “Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.” And even then it gets nervous and tarts things up. What can we make of a balcony scene that immediately leads to Romeo and Juliet falling into a swimming pool and reciting their best lines while treading water? I think back to the tender passion of the 1968 version, and I want to shout: “Romeo! Quick! Poison yourself!” The film's climactic scenes are more impressed by action-movie cliches than by the alleged source. Romeo pumps Tybalt full of lead while shouting incomprehensible lines. He tenderly undresses Juliet and they spend the night together. Shakespeare's death scene in the tomb lacked a dramatic payoff for Luhrmann, who has Juliet regain consciousness just as Romeo poisons himself, so that she can use her sweet alases while he can still hear them.
No doubt I will receive mail from readers accusing me of giving away the story's ending by revealing that Romeo and Juliet die. I had my answer all prepared: If you do not already know what happens to the star-crossed lovers, then you are not the audience this movie is aiming for. But, stay, my pen! Perhaps you are.
Literature, like any art, is open to interpretation. The timeless tale of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is a prime example. Although Shakespeare wrote in Elizabethan England, his plays have often been interpreted in a modern setting since he left virtually no set or costume description in the text.
We saw the story of Romeo and Juliet brought to modern times with "West Side Story" quite successfully, but to keep the original dialogue, as our latest version promised, would be a completely different task. This piqued my interest, as well as countless other teenagers who ran to the theater on opening night (or was it the stars Leonardo DiCaprio, and Claire Danes?). Whatever the reason, those in the audience were in for quite a show.
The scene opens with a very familiar artifact of the nineties: the television. And the news reporter lays the scene "in fair Verona," (Verona Beach, that is.) Here we are introduced to the players with giant titles, "Tybalt, Prince of cats, Captain Prince, Dave Paris, bachelor of the year" et al. Soon the audience is thrown amid gang violence where everyone packs "sword" brand guns, for the "Do you bite your thumb, sir" scene, one of my favorites and comical in any setting. At this point I was both laughing at its ridiculousness, and wondering how the director, Baz Luhrmann would capture the innocence of love in a setting more reminiscent of "Pulp Fiction."
We then meet Romeo in Sycamore Grove, theater ruins by the sea framed by a golden glow; at this moment the entire theater sighs. Next we travel to the Capulet's costume ball, which Janet Maslin of the New York Times described more like "Priscilla Queen of Verona." Here Juliet and Romeo meet dressed as an angel and a knight, and the mood thankfully changes. The famous "balcony scene" reenacted in every high school, proved itself to be far from mediocre and for the first time I felt drawn into this movie.
I found this film to be extremely inconsistent, ranging from flamboyant "Hollywoodization" to the belief in a bizarre, mystical world. Surprisingly, there were only a few scenes where the dialogue seemed out of place. However, one representation that I disagreed with was the magical "Queen Mab" speech told by the drag queen Mercutio, to be a drug trip, though plausible in this setting.
Though sometimes wavering a bit too far into its surreaiistic madness, "Romeo and Juliet" retains its creative integrity. The ocean side theater remnants of Sycamore Grove frame the tropical storm which is personified in the violent fate banishing Romeo to the barren trailer park and separating the "pair of star-cross'd lovers" on earth. The setting is laced with countless angels, glowing crosses and other holy images, which remind us that no matter how devout the characters are, nothing could deter their cruel and ironic earthly fate.
Although this movie was far from "classic," it had its moments, and once I convinced myself that Shakespeare wasn't turning in his grave, the movie was a lot more enjoyable. It marked the achievement of Luhrmann's goal, and perhaps will revive Shakespeare in the eyes of a new audience. Whethter you go to admire or criticize, this movie is well worth the trip to the theater
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.