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Romeo + Juliet

(aka William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, Baz Luhrmann, USA/Australia/Mexico, 1996)


 


It is time for this critic to do a very public flip-flop on a certain Australian director: Baz Luhrmann. I was not a fan of his debut, Strictly Ballroom (1992), which struck me
as amateurish and badly pitched in many respects – as well as cute and camp in ways that did not appeal.


But it only took about two minutes of his subsequent, largely American production of Romeo + Juliet to convince me that Luhrmann has made a quantum leap here as a
filmmaker. I was stunned to see the evidence of his advancement – it’s a bold and brazen movie. It goes completely out on a limb in the first scene, and stays there until
the very end. Whatever one makes of Luhrmann’s modernised, hyper-real, garishly colourful adaptation of a literary classic, this much cannot be doubted: he has crafted
a bold, cheeky, energetic piece of cinema.

 

Few films start as strongly as this. We see a small TV image embedded in the middle of the vast movie screen, and those ye olde Shakespearean words coming out of
the mouth of a newsreader. It’s an outrageous gambit, and it works instantly – at least, it did for me. Once the entire social milieu has been established and the principal
lovers take over the stage, Luhrmann finds and maintains the right, dynamic tone. He vividly portrays a world reeling from giddy excesses and fanaticisms of all kinds; but
he also conveys the calm at the centre of this storm, in the tender love between Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Juliet (Claire Danes). 

 

From that opening moment on, as the characters confront each other in the modern, mean streets of “Verona Beach”, every kind of modern vocal utterance – the yelps
and whoas of street gangs, the throat-clearing dissemblings of establishment oldies, the slurred moans and mumbles of teenagers in love – serves to channel
Shakespeare’s text. I haven’t been so pleasantly disconcerted by a stylistic device since I first saw Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), a modern musical
in which every single line is sung: everything from “I love you madly” to “pass the salt’ or “this car needs some oil”. The comparison with Demy is apt, because Romeo +
Juliet
is, in its way, a displaced modern musical, one that never stops loudly singing on some register or another.

There may be one or two people who are wondering at this point: isn’t this guy the same critic who poured scorn on Richard Loncraine’s modernised version of Richard III 
(1995), wailing – I’m now quoting a pedagogical notice I got in Metro magazine – that it was shocking, unwatchable, indeed a “precious, cloying, kitsch spectacle”? For,
on the face of it, Luhrmann’s film promises to be super-kitsch, the veritable last word in kitsch. It’s a miracle, I know, but the film totally works on that exact level.
This is partly because of its abundant energy and inventiveness – as opposed to the deadness and repetitiveness of Richard III. It’s also because (and I’m grateful for this)
Luhrmann goes easy on the camp humour this time around. There’s a touch of John Waters, particularly at the start, but essentially it is an entirely sincere, passionate
rendering of the tale. This is violent, spectacular, all-stops-out material.
The only puzzle, for me, is why Luhrmann gets so reticent when it comes to showing his soulful, trembling duo of Romeo and Juliet having sex, at last. I realise there is 
another viewpoint about this matter: not showing the consummation (some argue) keeps the thrill and passion of the dream alive for us, the spectators. Personally, I would
have appreciated a bit of on-screen sex, after all the swooning build-up. Luhrmann needs to school himself in some Stephen Dwoskin movies, fast.
The film certainly has the courage of its own convictions, and the gall to plunder its odd tics and obsessions. For a few moments, it even throws in some Benny Hill-style 
fast motion for sickly comic effect. In general, however, Luhrmann hurls us into a whirlwind of edgy, expressionistic styles. It’s a heady concoction: there is Martin
Scorsese-like kinetic editing, Hong Kong-style action shoot-outs, a Waters-type colour/décor scheme to pop your eyes out, and (as in Jean-Luc Godard) words flashed
onto the screen as strobing intertitles.
In fact, there are printed words on just about every surface of this film: on street signs, gun handles, the works – and that helps to give the entire piece a lurid, Pop Art 
ambience. The music, too, is a merry bricolage, ranging from the sweet pop of “Love Fool” by The Cardigans to jagged techno – and it went on as a cross-media franchise
when, a year later, Luhrmann remixed the music of a song used in the film, Rozalla’s “Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good)”, as the sonic bed for the crazily popular “Sunscreen
Song”.
Is all this playing-around wholly or precisely meaningful? No, it ain’t. As with Luhrmann’s penchant for putting his characters in or near water, the overall, surface 
elaboration is just that – pure surface display, jazzy spectacle. Some will choose to dub this, for better or worse, the epitome of cultural postmodernism. Use that word while
you still can, my friends, before it goes right out of style!

Perhaps the classical purists – or the secondary school teachers of English literature – among us will want to know: does this steamy minestrone of styles and tricks
help us to understand Shakespeare’s sacred text any better? The blunt answer to that one is: in all likelihood, no. I did not leave the film with a new, deeper or richer
understanding of the play. I have heard people complain bitterly about the treatment of Shakespeare by Luhrmann and his regular co-writer, Craig Pearce (not to be
confused, at any price, with Australia’s early 1980s Prince of Purple Rock Music Journalism, Craig N. Pearce). These fine folk decry the reduction of the original’s poetic
and thematic richness to the bare skeleton of a fast-moving, Hollywood-style plot.

 

In truth, there are a quite a few passages in which Luhrmann’s drive to have his actors tear through the text at lightning speed, or turn it into a symphony of grunts and
exclamations, does indeed pulp the original lines into frustrating gibberish. For this reason, the quieter scenes between DiCaprio and Danes tend to come across better
than the frenetic gang-war vignettes on the streets.  But, as a firm believer in Orson Welles’ famous principle that “every single way of playing Shakespeare, as long as
the way is effective, is right”, I was not overly bothered by this entire “radical adaptation” aspect of Romeo + Juliet.  

There’s no doubt that Luhrmann gives the basic elements of the play – young love, power-plays, Society versus the Individual, and the ultimate tragedy – a welcome 
immediacy. But let’s put the Great Western Canon aside for a moment, and be honest about what’s going on here. If Luhrmann were remaking West Side Story (1961),
or contriving a feature-length rock-video of Prince’s greatest hits, he would bring exactly these same themes, forms and energies alive, and in exactly the same way.
Romeo + Juliet
does not bring us closer to Shakespeare. So much of the original text is garbled and screamed, rushed and skipped in this performance that, after a while,
you stop trying to take it in. I did, anyhow – I had trouble even following or comprehending the plot, or the most basic motivations of the many characters. But who cares?
The experience is so good on a brute, visceral level.
However, I didn’t find myself totally with this film all the way, at every moment. It is possible to overrate Romeo + Juliet; in fact, it’s already been rather massively 
overrated by some of my Australian colleagues. Critics have been trying, it would seem, to slap an ever-higher star-rating on the thing. And can I just say something about
that in passing? More than ever, film reviewers are behaving in public like they’re bidding at an auction, and thus furiously trying to outdo each other: four and half stars, no
I give it five! Or as Claude Chabrol once quipped: it’s the greatest film I’ve seen since last week! Maybe some reviewers have finally, once and for all, decided to stop
pretending to be critics; now they’re simply embracing their newly appointed role as mad hype-merchants or promoters – mere adjuncts to the movie world’s public relations
industries.
I do start wondering about this when I see such unreasonably high “scores” given out to really awful Australian films such as Hotel De Love (1996). Even when recent 
films that I happen to also like get that five-star-hype treatment, I am among those compelled to ask: are we really saying that in 50 years, ten years, even five years time,
we will rate these current films on a par with Vertigo (1958) or The Seven Samurai (1954) or Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) or any other true masterpiece we can
possibly, consensually agree on?

After that gripe, back to the movie. Did I have any niggly problems with Romeo + Juliet? It is so unrelentingly on, so extravagant in its style, that sometimes the
overall effect can grow tiresome, or become merely exhibitionistic. There’s definitely a lack of nuance or modulation – the canny use of a particular technique to convey
a specific incident or emotion. It seems that, for Luhrmann, just as for Spike Lee for much of his career, a film has to fire on all levels all the time, and at the same,
unremitting, extreme intensity – or it’s hardly worth making at all.

 

But even I’m starting to sound like a fuddy-duddy classicist here – and Romeo + Juliet is simply not a classical film. It’s a movie in the (post)modern, show-off tradition
of advertising, music video, and Oliver Stone’s pyrotechnical extravaganzas. It’s designed to give you a quick fix, a sensory rush – and, on that level, it works
tremendously well. Luhrmann’s film seizes the viewer in a rough embrace, and never loses grip. Such delight is rare at the movies.

MORE Luhrmann: Moulin Rouge

© Adrian Martin December 1996 / February 1997


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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