Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet is both of its time but also slightly outside of it. It wasn't the first time Shakespeare was modernised on screen (Richard Loncraine's Richard III starring Ian McKellen as Richard in a fascist 1930s England was released the previous year) nor was it the first re-contextualisation of Romeo and Juliet in to a contemporary setting- West Side Story, which began as a play before becoming an Oscar-winning film in 1961, had already approached the story via the concept of rival gangs. But while Romeo + Juliet technically wasn't the first of its kind, it's still a one of a kind adaptation, fully committed without irony or embarrassment, sincere without being sappy- a genuine vision.
I would argue Romeo and Juliet, perhaps more than any of Shakespeare's other plays, makes the most sense to set in the present day. Two sexually aroused teenagers who take their love way too seriously and whose parents hate each other suits the modern era conceivably better than it did in 1597. Luhrmann opens the film with a television set in the distance, surrounded by black, an ominous image that immediately establishes the contemporary nature of the film and differentiates it from Franco Zeffirelli's classic and controversial (he cast actual teenage actors- Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting) 1968 version. The TV screen also establishes how in a modern setting, the story of Romeo and Juliet would be a media frenzy, especially with them being the children of prominent families in Verona Beach.
Luhrmann stages the opening brawl between the Capulets and Montagues at a gas station. Luhrmann plays it out like the most frantic neo-western you've ever seen, reminiscence of something out of a Robert Rodriguez movie. The media plays a part in this sequence as the shootout (I love that the guns are called swords and daggers) moves in to the wider area and we see Juliet's father Fulgencio Capulet (Paul Sorvino) turn on the news and see the headline "Third Civil Brawl." Prince Escalus from the play Captain Prince of the police, played by the stalwart actor Vondie Curtis-Hall. It's a bombastic opening that establishes the film's style and it's approach to the Bard.
I mentioned West Side Story earlier and I believe Luhrmann owes something to both the musical and film since Romeo + Juliet is a musical as well. No, Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Juliet (Claire Danes) don't burst in to song but the film's key emotional moments are accompanied by people singing either in the the scene or on the soundtrack. Also, most of the songs were written specifically for it. "Kissing You," the film's love theme sweetly underscores the first meeting of Romeo and Juliet as they view each other through a fish tank. This occurs after Romeo has sobered himself up after taking ecstasy from Mercutio (Harold Perrineau, clearly having a blast), during which we see Mercutio in drag sing "Young Hearts." The sequence is brazen and the transition to the softer interlude with Romeo and Juliet is reminiscence of what we would see in a musical, with a big number followed by a more intimate one by two lovers.
It's not surprising Shakespeare has been adapted in to Opera. He lends itself to the form since he's...well operatic. And appropriately, Luhrmann's next film would be Moulin Rouge (2001). I would also argue Romeo + Juliet is less about the poetry of Shakespeare's words than it is about the visuals and music. DiCaprio and Danes aren't great Shakespearean actors but I would put forward that for this film and it's intention, they don't have to be. Their sincerity is what really carries the film. Between this and Titanic the following year, I think DiCaprio was the biggest heartthrob on the planet, though DiCaprio did distance himself from these kind of roles. And Danes may be at her most beautiful here. The late Pete Postlethwaite (who had one of the great faces in movies) is supposedly the only actor in the film to speak in iambic pentameter and he's terrific as the no-nonsense but empathetic Father Laurence.
The movie's energetic style also slows down considerably when it's focused on Romeo and Juliet. When the two first meet in the aforementioned fish tank scene, the movie is slowing down, making us feel the immediate intimacy and affection Romeo and Juliet share. The scene also communicates how time does slow down when you're falling in love. I also like the symbolic touch of Juliet wearing angel wings.
The famous balcony scene is staged in a pool, giving the scene an erotic energy. It also makes sense in a modern-context for them to be more intimate during this scene. I don't think they would allow themselves to be restricted by any barriers. The pool also parallels them meeting at a fish tank.
Romeo and Juliet represent teenage love at its most extreme. They fall in love after meeting and agree to get married. Moreover, they can't bare to live without each other. Romeo drinks poison when he believes Juliet to be dead. When Juliet wakes up and sees Romeo is dead she stabs herself. However, Romeo and Juliet begin the play in different emotional places. Romeo is in love with a girl named Rosaline but Juliet isn't interested in getting married to Paris, Dave Paris in the film (played by Paul Rudd). Romeo can't conceive of loving anyone else other than Rosaline. Then he literally falls in love at first sight with Juliet. We have to wonder, would Romeo had dropped Juliet for someone else had they lived? Romeo feels more obviously the one to kill himself over a girl than Juliet to kill herself over a boy. In a bold move, Luhrmann has Juliet wake up as Romeo is taking the poison. Unlike the play they do share one last moment together.
I can't help but think there's a lot of Romeo and Juliet in many teenagers- especially if you agree with critic Harold Bloom that Shakespeare invented human consciousness. Hell, I was probably too stuck on certain girls in my teenage years. It may be a little hard for many readers and audiences to non-ironically accept Romeo and Juliet's love. But I doubt is the story works if the interpretation is ironically detached.
It's worth noting that what sets the tragedy in to motion is Mercutio's death by Tybalt (John Leguizamo), a casualty of the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets, who is of neither house. Mercutio's "A plague on both your houses" is essentially what happens. Mercutio is the play's most laid-back and jovial character and his death truly marks a dark turn for the story. For all his hyper-stylization, Luhrmann knows how to compose a shot. My favourite shot in the film is Romeo going off to kill Tybalt. Mercutio's body is in the foregound while Romeo in the background gets in the car while being persuaded to stay.
I'd say Romeo shooting down Tybalt is more potent than stabbing with him a sword. In the context of this universe Romeo has essentially committed a gangland murder. He's become a gangster, not that different than Tybalt.
At last, it is Romeo and Juliet's deaths that bring the Montagues and Capulets together. The story ends up being about parents' actions affecting their children, with the parents having to deal with those consequences. With Shakespeare, tragedy always is necessary for positive change or for a lesson to be passed down by the survivors In the context of this film's universe, the story is being told through the media. How will the people in this world react to this story. When viewing the film now in 2018, I can't help but think of how the media is criticised for supposedly spinning a particular narrative.
Luhrmann's film still stands as one of the boldest cinematic interpretations of Shakespeare, one that emphasises the appropriateness of placing the doomed romance in a modern setting. There's something more provocative in seeing the suicide of two young lovers in the present. Seeing them in body bags on a TV screen invokes real-life tragedy and asks how would we react to a story like this. Could we sum it up as eloquently as Shakespeare. Probably not.