With Valentine’s Day quickly approaching, I decided it was time to revisit the sensational tale of two young romantics and the terrible decisions they make in the name of love. No, I’m not talking about 50 Shades of Grey (the internet will surely give you your fill of that this week). I’m talking about the teenage hit of 1996: William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.
I was in high-school the first time I watched Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and by then the “modern” adaptation was already a decade old. The fact that Romeo and Juliet was never one of my favorite of Shakespeare’s works, coupled with the literal state of nausea Moulin Rogue left me in, should’ve led to my indifference about the film. But there was something in Lurhmann’s acid-washed, Californian version of this story (one that had already been told and retold even before The Bard appropriated it) that finally brought it to life for me. Now that it’s been almost twenty years since the film’s release, I’ve wondered if this version of the overly-familiar story still has any impact outside of my own teenage nostalgia. Besides providing high-schoolers with an alternative to Franco Zeffirelli’s film, is there a pulse left in Baz Luhrmann’s take on the two star-crossed lovers?
Luhrmann’s career and subsequent criticism revolve around his theatricality–grandeur without comparison. Despite remaining true to Shakespeare’s words, the film clearly distinguishes itself from English class by courting the MTV generation. Each frame of Romeo + Juliet is bursting with detail and color, and Luhrmann’s hyper-quick editorial choices often cast the characters in the sun-poisoned light of madness. The first half of the film is so over-stimulating at times that a seizure warning wouldn’t be unwarranted. Luhrmann merges music video stylization with operatic set designs, creating a film that’s a unique departure from the Renaissance style in which we’re used to seeing the story presented. Though the flashiness of his filmmaking is often the most discussed aspect of Luhrmann’s style, it’s a disservice not to talk about how much emotion he can pull from his simpler, more restrained shots. Our introduction to Romeo, sitting on the edge of a derelict, beach-side stage and bathed by the sun, is the shot that launched a million teenage crushes. And how could it not? Leonardo DiCaprio looks like he was delivered straight from God’s bosom.
While the film owes most of its success to Luhrmann’s stylistic choices, it’s impossible to ignore the sheer star power involved. Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, and Harold Perrineau each give brilliant performances. There’s no denying that they are over the top (nothing in this film is anything less), but that factor works within the context of the story. The idea that two people can fall madly in love with each other and are willing to marry after only spending about twenty minutes in each other’s presence is absurd. Even more absurd when you consider they are willing to die for that brief infatuation. The actors all play into that absurdity and crank everything up to eleven, even the sincerity in which they commit to their overdramitizations. There’s no greater testament to this than Mercutio’s death scene (“A plague on both your houses!”) and Romeo’s subsequent epic killing of Tybalt in the rain drenched streets. So while the film is unrealistic in its emotional examination, these states of heightened emotion invite viewers to suspend their disbelief far more than any other take on the play. In this way, (aided by the film’s fantastic soundtrack) Luhrmann’s film becomes musical.
In its aim to be modern, Romeo + Juliet plays like your favorite cover song. It’s not original, but it forces you to listen in a new way while adding some beats of its own. Sure, some people may ride you for liking it more than the classic version, but you can’t fight the chord it strikes. So is the heart of this film still beating? By creating a Shakespearian film of fast cars, acid trips, guns fights, and condensing a wild flurry of emotions into something cool, sexy, and tragic, Luhrmann provided the most famous romance of all time with a much needed shot of adrenaline. Not only does the film still completely own its every decision, I’m also still madly, unabashedly in love with it.