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 Baz Luhrman’s  William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet - a Review.

 

Midway through this film is a pivotal event: the death of Mercutio at the hands of Tybalt. It happens on a palm-fringed beach front: Verona Beach. As Romeo and his Montague friends begin to react to what has happened to Mercutio, the camera draws back for an extreme wide-view long shot. In the foreground is the proscenium arch of what was once a grand theatre on the beach front. The action is played out under and behind this proscenium, so that, in long shot and wide-view, we get the curious effect of watching a play from the upper circle in a theatre. We the viewers are turned into observers, detached, God-like. In the background in the same scene a hurricane is approaching: the sky is darkening, the palms are being whipped by the high winds, the stallkeepers are hurrying to close up and flee; Romeo races to his car to pursue and, soon, to kill Tybalt. The darkness rushes in to engulf them as the storm breaks over them. Like the cloud-shadow in the funeral scene of Red River, there is a satisfying symbolism: the death has a metaphysical and spiritual dimension, as well as more immediate implications for plot and character relationships. Shakespeare intends it to be pivotal: the downward trajectory of Romeo and Juliet’s fortunes begins here, sparked by an unlucky chance event. Baz Luhrman has since revealed [in an interview with Kim Hill] that the scene was fortuitous: the film’s cast and crew, warned of its approach, shot the beach scene while the hurricane was breaking around them. There is a serendipitous ‘metatextual’ quality to this anecdote: Fate intervenes in the making of the story as it does in the story itself.

 

This ‘metatextuality’ is clearly the overt intention of the director. It is signalled explicitly in the way the film begins: the first image is a television set in the centre of an empty screen. As the channels change, we see the first credits: ‘Twentieth Century Fox presents’ (click) ‘A Bazmark production’ (click); we see a news presenter speaking the play’s prologue in the measured, restrained tones of a ‘breaking news’ item. On the studio screen behind her is a broken wedding ring, with ‘I love thee’ inscribed. The whole screen then bursts with a montage of newspaper headlines in the form of fragmentary quotations reprising the  Prologue’s text (‘In fair Verona’, Ancient Grudge’, ‘New Mutiny’), with photographs and  news clippings from ‘Verona Today’: ‘Montague: Capulet. The Feud continues.’ On the lines ‘Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean,’ we cut to a speeding car on the freeway. From a close-up shot of ‘Montague’ tattooed into the back of a close-shaved head, we are quickly immersed in some turf warfare at a filling station between the ‘Capulet Boys’ and the ‘Montague Boys’: Act I scene 1, with much of Shakespeare’s dialogue intact, but the action and style of editing soon tell us we are seeing a parody of two genres: modern ‘action’ films and westerns.

 

Tybalt’s entrance, for example, borrows from the ‘spaghetti western’ genre, the cliched scene of the ‘baddy’ making his first appearance. Here, the four men fighting  suddenly freeze while we hear the sound of a match striking. There is a close-up of the match as it falls to the ground beside a black cat-spurred boot. The camera cranes up to meet the dark cold eyes and feline smile of  Tybalt, cigarette between teeth and gun-hand outstretched, the epitome of calm, menacing, cool control. Then follows the full panoply of effects from a modern action movie: a rapid sequence of cuts, whip pans, tilts, extreme close-ups, distortions, slam zooms, and crane shots. This escalating confrontation is comically undercut  by the exaggeratedly machismo actions of the men, obviously scared but trying not to show it. The occasional slow-motion shot makes their moves seem balletic (a reference, perhaps, to West Side Story ? ) as well as exaggerating the suspense in key moments. The fight itself is impossible: a pastiche of all the devices of acting and editing we expect from such scenes: the echoing ricochet bullet, the instant over-the-shoulder shooting, the commando roll, the innocent bystanders who get in the way but narrowly escape to safety, the slam-zoom extreme close-ups, the slow tracking of an opponent viewed through the cross-bars of the telescopic sight. So rapid is the cutting that we soon recognise the parodic quality of the whole scene.

 In moments, a crashing orchestral chord accompanies a wide-angle view of the whole area igniting in flames (Another reference, this time to Hitchcock’s The Birds ?) The camera cranes further up to a aerial-view wide-shot of the city, an enormous statue of Christ flanked by two towering glass office blocks, one surmounted with the name CAPULET, the other, MONTAGUE. This is a key image: the corporation buildings with the statue of Christ squarely between them are a potent symbol of the forces which motivate, dominate and divide the people in the story.

 

 This is an opening, in its own way, quite as arresting and as involving as, for example, Olivier’s to Henry V, or Branagh’s to Much Ado about Nothing. Baz Luhrman signals his intentions immediately: this is going to be no Zeffirilli or Cukor production; if anything, it is a deconstruction of those earlier films. Doublet and hose are now jeans and Hawaiian beach shirts; the streets of Verona are the beach frontage of what could be Baywatch; swords are handguns. Although a television news presenter has replaced the Chorus, both have the same function: to create a distance between the viewer and the events viewed. The television set, the newsreader, the newsroom’s screen graphics and the fast-paced editing of the fight sequence become a Brechtian alienation device, signalling that we are watching a form of documentary reportage: the world as seen and reinvented by television, with sound-byte dialogue, live interviews, strapped captions, hand-held cameras, the reporter on the scene, and the like. The film ends with ‘Captain Prince, Chief of Police’, speaking to  Montague and Capulet. In his final words, ‘all are punished’, he pronounces ‘punished’ in the Elizabethan manner, in three syllables, with the stress on the ‘-ed’, and then repeats it, vehemently. This offers yet another reference: to Zefferilli’s Prince Escalus who pronounced and repeated the line in precisely the same way. The image pixelates into a television picture, and, as the camera pulls back, we see again the anchorwoman in her studio. She speaks to camera the final lines, which in the play are spoken by Prince Escalus. This is the ‘wrap’ for the item, the image fades, and the television recedes into the distance. By thus framing the story, our detachment is preserved. We end as we began: watching the television news.

 

 The opening sequence also invites us to read the film in the idiom of contemporary television drama, Verona Beach 90210 or Montague Place, as it were. This is most obvious when the action freezes for a strap-caption introducing  characters: ‘The Montague Boys’, ‘Benvolio, Romeo’s friend’, ‘Tybalt, Prince of Cats. A Capulet’, and so on. Further, we register that the story is present-day and urban, the rival houses are now competing corporations, while the dominant statue of an ineffectual Christ is a frequently-repeated reminder of the power religion still has in the lives of these characters.

 

Another significant point: the Chorus’s reference to the suicide-death of Romeo and Juliet, in the line ‘A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life’, has been retained. Both Shakespeare and Luhrman seem to have sacrificed what could have been an important source of suspense in the story: will Romeo and Juliet survive? With a story this well-known, that would be pointless, anyway. Much of the pathos in the play, and the carefully-contrived ironies which permeate it, derive from our foreknowledge of how the story will end. We can maintain a degree of detachment from the lives of the protagonists, as we will do at the death of Mercutio, and as we have become inured to when watching the six o’clock news.

 

The title prompts an obvious question - whose, other than Shakespeare’s, version of the story did Baz Luhrman imagine we might think this film would be? Perhaps Mr Luhrman is biting his thumb at the ‘auteur’ school of film criticism, wanting to deprecate the tendency to suggest that the director of a film is equivalent to the author of a book. The title is there, perhaps, to remind us that this is the play as written by Shakespeare;  some text has been cut, but, (unlike Zefferilli, for example) nothing has been added. This is probably necessary considering the production design of the film, which plainly shows that this is a director’s vision very far removed from any notion of ‘traditional’ Shakespeare.

 

Contemporary Mexico City plays the part of a downtown L.A-style cityscape, a run-down, half-derelict urban setting, in which the Capulet mansion, opulent and ostentatious, is closely guarded and separate from the city it is part of. This is a detritus-filled, nigh-apocalyptic reinvention of Verona, one where prostitutes and their customers roam the beach front with a graffiti-covered wasteland behind them (Romeo, we notice, has done some ‘tagging’ of his name around here). This Verona has been transplanted firmly into a Latin American milieu. Such a setting is a product of the imagination of the film’s scriptwriters, just as was the Verona Shakespeare imagined for his play. It is not important, ultimately, whether the setting conforms to anyone’s sense of geographical ‘truth’; what matters is that this imaginary locale should contain all the necessary elements of verisimilitude for the story and its characters. And it does: we have seen this sort of blasted urban landscape in countless films and television dramas with angst-filled American teenagers as the main characters.

 

The setting, though familiar and believable, is not by any means realistic. That is inhibited by the art direction, which is gaudy to the point of becoming high camp. There is a blatant revelling in kitsch, tawdry, and vulgarity. The colours are vivid and intense, with a predominance of primaries favoured. The Verona Beach and Capulet Ball settings are both a cheerful exercise in gimmicky tastelessness. At the ball, the choreography and costumes suggest Busby Berkeley directing The Rocky Horror Show, while in Juliet’s bedroom and the Capulet tomb there are so many statues of Mary and Christ, bleeding hearts, angels, cherubs, and crosses that we expect to see Pierre et Gilles credited as artistic consultants. It is, nevertheless, an acceptable visual translation of the play’s extravagant, contrived and ostentatious verbal imagery, much of which, perhaps inevitably, has been cut for the screenplay. Thus, what might easily seem a gimmicky and meretricious Felliniesque extravagance (the Capulet ball and the tomb scene are perhaps the most extreme) becomes instead a convincing and coherent reworking of the play’s lavish textual idiom into something rich and strange: a feast for the eyes, if not now for the ears.

 

Why? Because a great irony this film produces is that what finally seems most awkward and out-of-place is Shakespeare’s text spoken by such obviously 1990s characters. This same problem occurred in Gus Van Sant’s film My Own Private Idaho, though the solution there, to mix modern and Shakespearean dialogue, created a odd linguistic hybrid which satisfied  no-one. Here, when Juliet asks her famous question ‘Wherefore art thou Romeo?’, it seems almost appropriate to give her a translation such as ‘Why are you called Romeo?’, and thus sidestep the perennial misunderstanding this line creates [she’s not asking ‘where are you?’ but ‘why do you have that name?’]. But, of course, the line is so well-known that it has to stay. It is a measure of the actors’ skills that they can suggest some contemporary implications through the way they point their lines. For example, when Clare Danes says of Romeo’s name:

 

                                             It is nor hand nor foot,

                      Nor arm nor face, nor any other part

                      Belonging to a man.                          [II, 2, 40 - 42]

 

her pause after ‘face’, her knowing grin and slight stress on ‘other’ lends this line a newer, coarser, interpretation. Clare Danes’ Juliet is no naive schoolgirl: she is sophisticated and sexually aware. An accomplished and talented actress, she moves convincingly from portraying an infatuated ingenue to a determined, self-reliant and resourceful  young woman.

 

Though the dialogue is cut by almost a third, its essence has been faithfully adhered to. Notwithstanding anything said above, the greatest pleasure of this film, is hearing the text spoken intelligently and articulately by most of the cast, in particular by Peter Postlethwaite as Friar Laurence and by Mirian Margolyes, who plays the Nurse as Dame Flora Robson did in the 1954 film: as an intelligent, competent family retainer, not a bawdy Mistress Quickly. Harold Perrineau as Mercutio handles the complex rhythms, musicality, extended metaphors and sophisticated wordplay of his speeches (‘Queen Mab’, especially) as well as any RSC actor might. The ‘Capulet boys’ achieve a definite hispanic lilt in their speech rhythms, which fits well to their overall characterisations.

 

 As Romeo, Leonardo DiCaprio’s American accent grates at first, but the virtuosity of his acting soon commands our full admiration. When we first meet him, he is unmistakably  James Dean, a ‘rebel without a cause’, brooding, melancholy, alienated from his parents, lonely and nursing an unrequited love. Naturally, he scribbles poetry in his notebook. By the end, associations with Kurt Cobain are implied, also. His Romeo is, by turns, impetuous, clumsy, naively romantic and fiercely, almost manically, vengeful. DiCaprio’s face contorts with gargoyle-like hatred when pursuing Tybalt. In a long-held close-up on his face immediately after he has killed him, we seem to read the realisation surfacing that this act will have consequences far beyond the present moment. We hardly need to hear his self-pitying cry, ‘I am fortune’s fool!’: his face has already told us. His is intelligent acting which illuminates the text and does not simply illustrate it. His beanpole body, angular and gaunt, is a good complement to Clare Danes’ androgynous features. In their scenes together, usually in two-shot framing and long takes, they create a believable and sweetly naïve pair of lovers, while retaining sufficient fragility to make the ending the more pathetic.

 

There is wit and sly creativity in the way Luhrman has found textual justifications for most of his updatings. When Abraham sneers at the Capulets: ‘Draw, if you be men’, the camera zooms up to the barrel of Benvolio’s revolver: the engraved gun type reads ‘Sword 9mm, Series S.’ (Others have the brand names ‘Longsword’, ‘Dagger’ or ‘Rapier’ as the text dictates). Queen Mab, the fairies’ midwife, is reinvented as an tab of LSD Mercutio gives Romeo before they go to the Capulet ball. When Benvolio tells Ted Montague that Romeo, lovesick for Rosaline, has been walking ‘underneath the Grove of Sycamore’, this verbal scene-setting creates the ornate proscenium of a demolished, once-splendid theatre, the ‘Sycamore Grove,’ on Verona Beach. Enacting scenes on what would have been the stage of this theatre is a witty comment on the transformation we are witnessing in turning a play for the theatre into a film for a cinema. Are we also being told that theatre itself is now near-extinct? Clever, too, are the references to earlier films:  Romeo, in bed with Juliet, plays at creating a tent with the sheet, enclosing them both. This recalls the scene in Zefferilli’s film where Mercutio played with the Nurse’s voluminous headdress in a similar way.

 

The costumes make some telling points, too. Romeo’s words when he hears Juliet at her window, ‘Speak again, bright angel’ (2, 2, 26), have obviously prompted her angel-wings costume at the ball; and perhaps Juliet’s line ‘Give this ring to my true knight’(3, 3, 142), suggested Romeo’s King Arthur-style chain-mail and armour. They wear these costumes when they first meet: she is his angel, he her knight. On Juliet’s second visit to Friar Lawrence, after Romeo has been banished, she wears the demure skirt, blouse and beret, of her school uniform, the image of a pious Catholic schoolgirl attending confession. This fools Paris completely when he encounters her there. Other costumes are also ironically appropriate and amusing: At the ball, Juliet’s parents seem to be enacting a parody of Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s other play about doomed lovers. Paris, Timely’s  Bachelor of the Year (John Kennedy Jun.?), the man who aspires too high for Juliet, is aptly ridiculous as a NASA astronaut.

 

These costume-choices work well as an element in the film’s design, because they illuminate an important element of  the character who wears the clothes. The set design, however, is even more complex in its details. Again, Luhrman fills the screen with references: you could even make quite a game of ‘Spot the Shakespeare allusions’. Look carefully at the Verona Beach set, and read the names of the shops and stalls there: sight gags abound. Among others, there are ‘Mistress Quickly’s’, ‘Jack Cade’s’, ‘Rosencrantzy’s Burgers’, ‘The Pound of Flesh’, and ‘The Midnight Hags’. A fly-poster on a street advertises a performance of ‘The Merchant of Verona Beach’; Romeo and Benvolio play pool in ‘The Globe Theatre’; Friar Lawrence pours a shot of ‘Prospero’s Whisky’ which, says its label, is ‘such stuff as dreams are made on’; and he sends his ill-fated letter to Romeo in Mantua (by ‘Post Haste Post’) on a form with space for the ‘local habitation and name’ of the recipient. If you’re quick enough, you might spot at the centrepiece of Juliet’s bedhead the carved face of a famous Elizabethan playwright……..  

 

All this busy self-referential visual humour is, it seems, intended as a substitute for the low comedy involving Peter, the musicians, and the household servants, almost all of which has been cut from the film. But, too, it becomes a visual equivalent for the quips, puns and nimble wordplay which are an important element of Romeo’s, Benvolio’s and Mercutio’s camaraderie, but which would be largely lost on a modern audience. The visual humour operates also on a intellectual level, much as the wordplay and punning would have done for the wits and sophisticates of Shakespeare’s audience. Significantly, most of these sight gags appear in the early part of the film only: after the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, the humour wanes as the mood turns dark. Again, this is entirely appropriate to the spirit of the original play.

 

The particular achievement of this film lies in the dazzling realisation of a relatively simple insight by the director. Shakespeare wrote an exciting, moving, lyrical, energetic, sexy, passionate play about youth: what is the best possible way to recreate that in visual terms which a modern, mostly young, audience will respond to and identify with? First, forget about being reverent because it’s Shakespeare. Instead, pillage all the resources of contemporary and past film-making styles; borrow and copy costume and designs from high and low culture; from classical and contemporary music; use the tawdry and trashy as much as the refined and sophisticated. Instead of pretending there is no tradition of play performance and film making preceding this production, ransack the tradition to create a film which fully captures the tragedy, the comedy, the passion and the energy of the story.  As Luhrman himself says in a foreword to the screenplay:  ‘We have not shied away from clashing low comedy with high tragedy, which is the style of the play, for it’s the low comedy that allows you to embrace the very high emotions of the tragedy.’[Luhrman & Pearce, p.v, (1997)]  If Shakespeare could do so, I suspect he would agree with that, too.

RJG  7/97

Richard Gyde

 

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

 

 

TEXTS:

 

Shakespeare, William:  Romeo and Juliet   Ed. T.J.B. Spencer. Penguin, 1967

Shakespeare, William:  Romeo and Juliet   Ed. J.H.Walter. Heinemann, London, 1967

Shakespeare, William:   The Complete Works.  Eds: S. Wells and G. Taylor. Oxford, 1988

 

SCREENPLAY:

 

Pearce, Craig and Luhrman, Baz : William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.  Hodder, 1997

 

 

JOURNAL ARTICLE:

 

Arroyo, Jose. ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.’ Sight and Sound  3. [March 1997.]  pp 6 - 9.

 

 

RADIO INTERVIEW:

 

Baz Luhrman with Kim Hill, Nine to Noon,  4 Feb, 1997.   Radio New Zealand (Replay Radio)

 

 

 

 

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How to cite this article:
Gyde, Richard. Baz Luhrman’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet - a Review. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/essays/RJG.html >.