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By Joshua Smith

William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Author: Joshua Smith
Published on: March 3, 1998

Leading Players: Leonardo DiCaprio (Romeo), Claire Danes (Juliet), Miriam Margolyes (Nurse), Pete Postlethwaite (Friar Lawrence), Brian Dennehy (Ted Montague), Paul Sorvino (Fulgencio Capulet), John Leguizamo (Tybalt), Diane Venora (Gloria Capulet), Dash Mihok (Benvolio), Jamie Kennedy (Sampson).

Main Crew: prod, Gabriella Martinella & Baz Luhrmann; dir, Baz Luhrmann; writ, Craig Pearce, Baz Luhrmann (based on the stageplay by William Shakespeare); dop, Donald McAlpine; ed, Jill Bilcock; mus, Nellee Hooper, Craig Armstrong, Marcus DeVries; prod d, Catherine Martin; cos, Kym Barrett.

Romeo and Juliet, possibly Shakespeare's best-known literary classic, has, as with most of his other theatrical works, been replicated countless times on film. On each occasion, the author of the film has reflected his or her personal interpretation of the work through the film's form. Of late, the original work has suffered numerous avante-garde analyses that have attempted to breathe life into the work in order to increase its contemporaneous relevance. Examples of this can be seen in the severe manipulation of most of the play's elements in Troma Studios' Tromeo and Juliet (1995), and, most successfully, in Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (1996).

Baz Luhrmann has freed Shakespeare's incredibly expressive and emotive prose from the melancholy of numerous transposition adaptations of the work. As Shakespeare himself did so well in the late 1500s, Luhrmann has discarded convention, mocked the pretentious bourgeois and created a masterwork of popular culture with his off-the-cuff surreal mind-blower. Luhrmann's understanding of, and respect for, the stage-play are evident in the precise construction of this 115-minute montage of visual metaphors. Just as Shakespeare was able to manipulate his audience via verbal metaphors, Luhrmann has dropped enough hints to allow his audience to garner an in-depth understanding of each of the main characters' motivations, while keeping the film tight and explosively energetic. This decision has, as with Jean-Luc Godard's avante-garde experimental version of King Lear (1988), enabled the director to transcend the medium, deriving more resonance and relevance than was capable through faithful literary translation.

This isn't to say that Luhrmann has abandoned the rich poetic ramblings of Shakespeare's original work. Indeed, the characters, while cruising around a modern Miami beach-type recreation of Verona, retain the flowery prose as originally penned by Shakespeare. The flashing of some of the lines on-screen also elevates their effectiveness, especially during the masterfully staged opening sequence.

One of Luhrmann's finest decisions has been in the conversion of Shakespeare's characters into modern archetypes that are easy to recognise. Certainly, a great deal of the impact that permeated Shakespeare's plays upon their release was their capacity for satire, mocking contemporaneous public and political figures. In this nineties version, the flamboyant Mercutio has become RuPaul, Dave Paris is a fictional version of JFK junior (his image even appearing on the front cover of a magazine alongside the title, "Bachelor of the Year"). Romeo, perhaps literature's ultimate symbol of youthful rebellion, has been shot in a manner that conjures up comparisons between the intense Leonardo DiCaprio and James Dean, cinema's ultimate rebellious archetype.

Having adapted one stage-play into a bold, visually stunning kitsch comedy previously (Strictly Ballroom, 1992), Luhrmann again opted for a bright, dynamic mise-en-scene within which the tragic tale would be told. In doing so, the director incorporated countless references to this century's icons of popular culture in his portrayal of the gimmick-laden Verona Beach. Luhrmann has directed the work with a breakneck pace and vitality reminiscent of the oeuvres of Woo, Rodriguez and Tarantino.

The amalgamation of a variety of visual mediums, including film, newsreel-type video footage, computer-generated newspaper headlines, inter-titles and still graphics, Romeo + Juliet also harks back to Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1994). Similarly, Romeo + Juliet's stunning soundtrack consists of a melange of sounds, ranging from heavy, rap-inspired sequences that enhance the film's visceral core, through to a boy's choir rendition of Prince's "When Doves Cry" and soft ballads. This seemingly haphazard blend of musical and visual styles has enabled Luhrmann to successfully traverse the line between the issue of gang violence, and the sensitive relationship that burns throughout the film.

The on-screen relationship between the multi-faceted DiCaprio and the innocent, hauntingly tender Danes smoulders with a compelling passion that highlights both actors' unequivocal mastery of the text. Miriam Margolyes, as the Nurse, and Pete Postlethwaite, as Friar Lawrence, also sing Shakespeare's bounding poetry with a resonance that recalls staged performances of his work, without being restricted by stifling conventionalities that have been imposed on the ballad's work by upper-class intellectual audiences. Perhaps the most impressive performance, however, comes from John Leguizamo, whose fiercely sexy and menacing Tybalt is played with conviction and passion.

Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet certainly marks a dramatic tangent away from the countless stage-like, faithful film conversions of the Shakespearian classic, opting instead for a more contemporaneous, dynamic restaging of the immortal tale. His manipulation of many classic lines, and his decision to have Juliet wake in time to see her lover poisoned, displays an artistic license that many directors have feared to take with the story. Intense colour saturation, the employment of rapid cuts, intercuts and montages, interspersed with fast tracking shots, and a technique in which film could be sped up and slowed down during shooting, has created a work that compliments the aural splendour of Shakespeare's words with a visual grandeur that is equally as poetic in nature.

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