Romeo + Juliet
I am an unapologetic Baz Luhrman fan. I say this because a lot of people feel he starts out over the top, and then goes on from there. I wouldn’t argue, and that’s what I like about him. The only director I can think of who made such totally, all-out, balls-to-the-wall, jaw-dropping visual and musical insanity is Ken Russell. Luhrman has made only five films and of them, only Australia bears any resemblance to anything you have ever seen before.
I am also a huge fan of Shakespeare, and I am not a purist at all. I love the full-length versions set in the proper period, and I love equally (and maybe even more) the adventurous, experimental productions where more modern setting are used. There is even an alternate-universe version of Richard III that takes place in a Nazified United Kingdom, and I loved it. So this jazzed-up version of the Bard’s greatest romance was no challenge to me at all. True, the dialogue is abbreviated and a line here and there is changed, but the important thing is that much of the wonderful verse is retained.
So we are transported to Verona Beach (most of the movie was shot in various locations in Mexico) where two groups of gangsters have been feuding for generations. They drive hot customized low-riders, and they pack pistols that, instead of saying Smith & Wesson on the side, are called Swords, Daggers, and Rapiers. They wear loud Hawaiian shirts. Paul Sorvino is the boss of the Capulets and Brian Dennehy rules the Montagues. John Leguizamo is Tybalt, and Vondie Curtis-Hall is the city’s top cop, instead of the Prince. All of these are very good, as is Pete Postlethwaite as the Friar and Miriam Margolyes as the Nurse.
But the most critical roles, of course, are the star-crossed lovers. Claire Danes was actually only seventeen when this was filmed. Leonardo DiCaprio was twenty-two, and looked younger. And they both do a great job of navigating the treacherous waters of Shakespearean speech.
This is a gorgeous production, as all of Baz Luhrman’s movies are. It is bursting with color and music and action. In fact, it more nearly resembles a music video in some sequences … but then it knows when to linger, as in the wonderful shot when they first see each other, through a salt-water fish tank.
There is another production of Romeo and Juliet that hasn’t gotten a wide release yet, starring Hailee Steinfeld. Sorry to hear that it’s not getting great reviews.