|'Luhrmann gives his adaptation the gravity, tension and passion needed to bring Shakespeare’s emotional and aggressive story to life'.|
Kickstarting the teen Shakespeare subgenre that would last for over a decade following its release, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet also stands toe to toe with another 1996 Shakespeare adaptation regularly held in incredibly high regard: Kenneth Branagh’s epic Hamlet. Whilst many in the past have dismissed Luhrmann’s film as trashy exploitation of classic literature, there is no doubt in my mind that this continues to stand as one of the greatest Shakespeare adaptations ever committed to film.
Luhrmann’s choice to maintain the Shakespearean language remains as bold now as it was nearly two decades ago, but it’s a choice which continues to pay dividends. From the explosive rendition of the prologue in the opening moments, Luhrmann gives his adaptation the gravity, tension and passion needed to bring Shakespeare’s emotional and aggressive story to life. The opening petrol station scene epitomizes the mindless hatred between the Montague and Capulet families for the story to unfold within. The director takes influence from an impressive array of genres and styles - action, gangster and spaghetti western to name just three - blending them together effortlessly into a brilliant technicolour cocktail of irresistible excess.
The cast sees a gallery of young talents bringing freshness and vigour to each role. Leonardo DiCaprio encapsulates Romeo’s moody, lovesick adolescent from his opening moments penning awkward teen poetry, taking the character on a journey which, despite knowing how events have to end up, makes us want to believe that things might just work out this time. Claire Danes as Juliet is excellent opposite DiCaprio, looking and acting the part of the innocent young girl forced by both fate and her parents (Paul Sorvino and Diane Venora, equally powerful presences throughout) to grow up painfully quickly. Of the rest of the outstanding cast, Harold Perrineau’s unforgettably theatrical Mercutio and John Leguizamo’s arrogant desperado Tybalt stand out as particularly perfect placements of actors into roles.
Luhrmann’s vision is comprehensive, presenting Shakespeare’s story in a wholly original yet consistently respectful way. The director draws you into his film’s artistic yet gritty universe instantly, ensuring each decision made to update the original story feels both comfortable and clever; firearms used throughout with names such as “longsword” and “dagger” are the most obvious example, but there are many both prominent and subtle to enjoy throughout.
It’s perhaps in Luhrmann’s occasional alteration of Shakespeare’s story that Romeo + Juliet’s distinction as a truly exceptional film comes to light. His treatment of characters such as Paris (Paul Rudd) may be brutal in reducing the role, but it's only to ensure that the film’s inevitable climax packs the greatest emotional punch in the purest manner. The final scene between Romeo and Juliet is perhaps more heart-wrenchingly tragic than ever thanks to the director’s subtle yet respectful reworking of a handful of key moments and lines.
You need only look at the tepid reception Carlei’s adaptation received last year for evidence of the indelible impact Romeo + Juliet has had on the play’s future on film. Lurhmann’s film has rightfullly taken up residence alongside Zeffirelli’s traditional version as one of the defining adaptations of Romeo & Juliet, against which all future cinematic star-cross’d lovers deserve to be measured.
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