Whose Romeo + Juliet is it anyway?

Baz Luhrmann has definitely gone off the boil recently. His most recent feature film, The Great Gatsby (2013) was to my mind all style and no substance. Australia (2008) held my attention due to just enough strategically placed The Wizard of Oz (1939) references to keep me going. Luhrmann’s first feature film, Strictly Ballroom (1992), rose to moments of great power during the dance sequences. In the midst of these are Baz Luhrmann’s two best works. Moulin Rouge (2001) is for me such a masterpiece that Baz shouldn’t feel remorseful he’ll never reach those lofty heights again; because I simply don’t think it’s do-able. Before Moulin Rouge came Romeo + Juliet (1996). This film contains so many of the directorial traits later to be taken to astounding extremes in Moulin Rouge (2001); the sped up, get-on-with-it footage, the pastiche of other genres and the unique blend of music, costume and culture from all eras.

As Lurhmann himself has explained; his films all deal with heightened methods of communication. Strictly Ballroom communicates using dance, Moulin Rouge relies on music, Australia, the landscape. Romeo + Juliet uses undiluted Shakespearean language. Yet to me, it seems strange that Luhrmann gives his film the full title of William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. The language is undoubtedly Shakespearean, and yet to use a plus sign in the title seems to be insisting that there is something different about this version. Granted, Shakespeare’s language is used throughout, however Luhrmann’s cuts and changes in scene order, as well as his unique directorial style, make this more than the bard’s words.

Lurhmann creates a relentless juggernaut of a film; a busy, vibrant, violent story-world that has almost become synonymous with the way the play itself. This merciless pacing makes sense of the foolish decisions and frustrating, near-miss-misunderstandings prevalent throughout. The direction makes clear that when emotion is heightened and time is running short, these tragic things simply happen. The delivery can be so fast that it’s easy to miss the dialogue; or at least the full meaning of the dialogue, but this speed whizzes through language that is difficult for many with haste, and at least the overall thrust is clear. The early Act 1 Scene1, “do you bite your thumb at us, sir?” exchange does feel like the most intensely alternative interpretation of a scene in the play, simply because its speed makes it feel almost irritatingly oddball.

As a purist, I dislike some of the omissions. I understand that Paris’ death, for example, slows down the snowballing finale and draws attention away from the central tragedy of the “star-cross’d lovers”. This is by no means the only version of the play which makes this cut, but for me part of the miserable nature of the play is that so many characters are dragged into the fallout. To miss out Paris’ death makes his character a buffoon in Luhrmann’s version, who Juliet (and the audience) are invited to mock for his repeated attempts to woo her. In many stories, Paris’ character would be the romantic heart throb, and his love for her only seems irritating and inappropriate because it obscures the love story (or lust story) which we really want to see play out. Paul Rudd does well with the part, but it would have been fun to see what he’d done with Paris’ truly meaty finale.

It’s clear that Luhrmann and his team put much love and attention into the design of the film. In terms of set design; Juliet’s room, for example, reflects how she’s still a little girl; it’s full of dolls and stuffed bears, her door is covered with stickers. There’s also the extended symbolism of setting the opening scene in a gas station (all it takes is one spark…) and the use of a disused proscenium arch and theatre seating, seemingly abandoned on the beach for the pivotal Act 3 Scene 1, where the Montagues and Capulets come together for their fatal brawl. There are even advertising signs which make nerdy Shakespeare references; the pool hall is situated in the “Globe Theatre”, The Prospero Scotch Whiskey company’s tagline is “Such stuff as dreams are made on.” There are some visual aspects to Lurhmann’s version that are so distinctive and unforgettable that they have become shorthand for the play itself. The angel and knight costumes for Romeo and Juliet respectively have become such a recognisable cliché that it is now open to parody, for example Hot Fuzz (2007). What disturbed me however is how some aspects of the film now seem dated; from the old TV on which the prologue is delivered (pre flat-screen days) to the very 90s soundtrack featuring Radiohead and the Cardigans.

It really doesn’t bother me what accent people use to deliver Shakespeare’s language with. Our modern English accent is now very different to how Shakespeare would have been delivered originally, anyway. There’s even a theory that Shakespeare OP (Original Pronunciation) would have sounded a lot more like modern American accents. It’s a relief to have a film populated by US accents – rather than fake sounding English accents – which get in the way of the actual acting, but I don’t understand why Pete Postlethwaite then has to pretend to be American. I felt this was a strange decision.

Aside from the wonderful performances from the leads, DiCaprio and Danes – who have gone on to even bigger things since – there are a range of other outstanding performances. Miriam Margolyes plays Juliet’s Nurse with an accent that re-invents the character. John Leguizamo doesn’t have a lot to do as Tybalt, but he does it very well. Harold Perrineau is at times both gregarious and unnerving as Mercutio. When Juliet refuses to marry Paris, Lord Capulet (Paul Sorvino) behaves like a terrifying mafia don whose wishes are being denied. The audience suddenly gets an unsettling feeling of the male dominance in the Capulet house; Lord Capulet rules completely over Juliet, her mother and the Nurse. The only character whose portrayal confuses me is Lady Capulet (Diane Venora). At times, her character is an extreme, party-hard, high-riding Cleopatra. Later, she is a dowdier abused housewife in mourning, who essentially sells out her daughter to their mutual abuser. Perhaps these inconsistencies are inherent in the play – and Venora is excellent in the part – but Luhrmann’s changes in direction from fast-paced and eccentric, to slower paced family drama, only make these radical differences in her character the more pronounced.

Act 3 Scene 1 is the central scene in the play, and Lurhmann really knows how to ramp up the tension, running with Shakespeare’s use of pathetic fallacy as the dark clouds roll in and night falls. Clichés become clichés because they are effective, they work – and Lurhmann isn’t afraid to use them from time to time. The atmosphere Luhrmann creates is tight and claustrophobic, like the blinkered mind sets of these characters, rushing into the wrong decisions Lurhmann’s ever increasing pace brings this out even more and reinforces the sense that the action is snowballing out of control. When Romeo manages to gain access to the chapel where Juliet lies, the audience are aware that events are still unwinding outside, but the ornate location means that Romeo must walk down a long aisle, delaying the moment where he sees Juliet’s body and prolonging the final tragedy. The horrendously frustrating near-miss double-suicide at the play’s conclusion becomes even more of a frustrating near-miss. Juliet opens her eyes before Romeo even puts the poison to his mouth, in fact it is almost the surprise of his supposedly dead lover reaching up to touch his face that causes him to tip it down his throat!

This final scene also contains a bit of a Lurhmann trademark. When the final tear runs down Romeo’s face and he almost robotically blinks and shuts down at the moment of his death, Juliet sobs alone in the echoing chapel. Claire Danes’ noisy but distressingly natural sounding cries are heartbreaking, and are similar to the sounds of grief made by Christian (Ewan McGregor) at the end of Moulin Rouge as well as Rodolfo’s audible sobbing after the final blackout in the recorded version of La Boheme (1993).

The sight of seeing the young lovers carried away in body bags is disarming. In those last moments of the play, Luhrmann’s cuts take away a lot of the sense of resolution for the audience. The Friar and the Nurse are absent; there is no final conversation or reconciliation between the Montague and Capulet families. This makes the ending feel particularly sudden and unresolved, there is no sign that the “parent’s strife” is buried, and little sense of optimism for the future. Gee thanks, Baz.

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