Ludicrous car chases, intense hot pink hair and a world where Prince songs are sung as hymns; is this what Shakespeare wanted when he wrote Romeo and Juliet over 400 years ago? Baz Luhrmann’s film adaption of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, is a kaleidoscopic, punk version of the story of ‘star-crossed lovers’ that buries Shakespeare’s work amongst the flamboyant scenes. In one catastrophe, Luhrmann has mixed Shakespeare with gang wars, luring both to audiences to this production, yet disappointing all. Despite the ‘huge success’ this film has made in the box office, we can only ask; what was Luhrmann thinking to betray Shakespeare like this?
The tragedy begins with a TV news report on the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. The report is titled ‘Star Crossed Lovers’. We are then shown a quick montage, introducing the main characters before a panoramic shot displays the setting; Verona Beach, dominated by two skyscrapers displaying large lights which read Montague and Capulet. We are then immersed into this ‘future world’ where a standoff occurs between the Montague boys and the Capulet boys. We are shown an extreme close-up shot of the guns, each branded a ‘sword’ and labelled with the family crest. If the rest of the movie stuck to this fast-paced, full-on, furious style, then it would definitely not be Shakespeare, but maybe it would not be a disaster; however, it is not bold enough to abandon its Shakespearean roots, creating great confusion through the remainder of the film.
The biggest inconsistency to Luhrmann’s adaption, is the language of the play, which is kept original while everything else reflects radical modernisation and excessive modification. In such a different context, much of the dialogue is lost and misinterpreted. Often the poetic lines are screamed and shouted so incomprehensibly, that the actors might as well be speaking in tongues. Fortunately, the talented and appealing Claire Danes (Juliet) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Romeo) managed to revive parts of the film, with their vital passion and the way they speak their lines with the grace and melody that was intent by Shakespeare.
Undoubtedly, ruining Shakespeare’s masterpieces is not a method debuts in Luhrmann’s film. From ballets, to songs, to several Oscar winning movies, not all Shakespeare remakes are let-downs. Several films have taken a similar line of action as Luhrmann, including the West Side Story made in 1961 to 10 Things I Hate About You in 1999, none have been such a disappointment as this infamous Luhrmann film.
Italian director, Franco Zeffirelli, in his 1968 classic hit Romeo and Juliet manages to pinpoint the essence of beauty that was intent by Shakespeare when writing this play, during the 16th century. This British-Italian romance film, manages to capture the exquisiteness of young love, with 15 year-old Olivia Hussey playing Juliet and 17 year-old Leonard Whiting playing Romeo, manage to create the perfect emotional balance between tension, love and excitement, in the way a great film should position its viewers. Furthermore, Zeffirelli plays his part well in adhering to the renowned script, only occasionally modernising the film.
With his setting, costumes and music, Luhrmann has not been faithful to Shakespeare, modernising the majority of this production, but is this all for the bad? The film’s setting actually has a cunning twist to the original; instead of being set in Verona, Italy, it is set in Verona Beach a bustling modern beachside metropolis, which was filmed in parts in Mexico. The city has a strong resemblance with the modern Miami, possessing skyscrapers, modern cars and other modern infrastructure, all of which has been overwhelm by the city-wide feud between the houses; Montague and Capulet. The costumes have been drastically changed from the original Elizabethan dress to highly modernised Hawaiian shirts, leather boots and hot pink hair. Additionally, the music is a modern hip-hop style, utilising effects such as the electric guitar and the choir can be heard singing Prince songs as hymns.
One of Luhrmann’s greatest decisions, was to choose the two perfect actors to play the main roles. In the final scene, Luhrmann goes over the top in creating a flower-strewn altar that is lit by 2000 candles, yet the grand passion that this tragedy requires, is delivered with ease by DiCaprio and Danes. This, however, is one of Luhrmann’s only good decisions, with the rest of the production being a major disappointment. Baz Luhrmann is well known for pushing the boundaries with his unconventional methods, but in Romeo and Juliet he has not only crossed the line, but has vandalised the great Bard’s lifelong legacy.