movie film review | chris tookey

William Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet

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  William Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet Review
Tookey's Rating
10 /10
Average Rating
6.88 /10
Juliet Capulet ...... Claire Danes , Romeo Montague ...... Leonardo DiCaprio , Mercutio ............ Harold Perrineau
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Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
Written by: Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce , based on the play by William Shakespeare.

Released: 1996
Origin: US
Length: 120

Boy (Leonardo DiCaprio, pictured right) meets girl (Claire Danes, pictured left).
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Cruelly overlooked at the Oscars, where it received only one nomination - for art direction - this is, I firmly believe (and I’ve seen it four times), the best Shakespeare picture ever made, and one of the few truly revolutionary films of recent years.

But first, a few warnings. It is loud and crude - deliberately so. The film contains only Shakespeare’s text, but this has been pared down to half its length, and some of the dialogue is yelled or drowned out by effects and music - intentionally.

The Australian director Baz Luhrmann (whose first film was the equally entertaining, but more modestly scaled, Strictly Ballroom ) has noticed, as the makers of West Side Story did before him, that there is a strong element of violence and vulgarity in Shakespeare’s greatest love story.

Luhrmann, almost alone of those who have approached Shakespeare in the west, has spotted that Shakespeare did not write a play about polite, English people from the professional classes - in other words, the sort of people who have supported Shakespearean theatre since the Victorian era.

He has transported the action to a modern-day equivalent of Verona - a Hispanic-American Verona Beach (the film was shot in Mexico City and Veracruz), where corporations are at loggerheads, gangs carry guns openly, and religious piety exists side-by-side with rampant commercialism. Surprisingly, the Shakespearean verse seems at home here. Iambic pentameters are curiously akin to rapping, which imposes rhythm, structure and metaphors on a way of life that might otherwise fly into fragments.

I am usually suspicious of updated Shakespeare, but here it is carried through with an endearing sense of fun, and sustained over two hours with breathtaking imagination. It may seem, at first sight, to be gimmicky - the prologue is delivered by a TV newscaster , Mercutio is a black drag-queen and drug-pusher, Romeo swallows a tab of Queen Mab (Ecstasy) before going to the Capulets’ party; but there’s method in this madness, and it springs from a highly intelligent reading of the text.

The Capulet-Montague riots of the play are big acts of public disorder, the kind which would be reported nowadays on television; Mercutio is a show-off, a spinner of dreams, and more than a little infatuated with Romeo; long before he meets Juliet, Romeo is in love with the idea of love - he’s in a state of near-perpetual ecstasy.

Inevitably, some will take exception to the flashy style of shooting, which is more MTV than RSC. But whereas the MTV style is often used to disguise second-rate product, here it illustrates first-rate art, generates genuine excitement and reflects a dangerously psychotic society spinning out of control, a hideously vulgar older generation and a horribly violent younger one.

When it’s time to slow down and focus on the two star-cross’d lovers and revel in Shakespeare’s lyricism, the film does just that. There are scenes here of great tenderness and beauty, and we really do come to care about this Romeo and Juliet.

A good deal of snobbery remains in critical circles on both sides of the Atlantic about Americans speaking Shakespeare’s verse - for no good reason, since there is no evidence that modern English is any closer to the Elizabethan accent than present-day American. The actors here have been accused of being unintelligible and unprofessional. Not by me. Some of the verse isn’t instantly comprehensible to modern ears and repays closer study; but these actors know precisely the meaning of what they are saying, and communicate it with verve, great sensitivity to rhythm, and emotional intensity.

At the head of a terrific cast, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Daines are touchingly youthful and inhabit the roles with painful sincerity. Miriam Margolyes exploits her wicked sense of humour as the Nurse, with an outrageous but accurate Hispanic accent; Pete Postlethwaite provides an anguished moral centre as Father Laurence; and Diane Venora is one of the best Lady Capulets I have seen.

Some older people dismissed the film as a lively but flawed introduction to Shakespeare, aimed at those too immature to appreciate the real thing. I disagree profoundly. This is the real thing. It’s as fresh, exciting and visually imaginative as Pulp Fiction , but with better dialogue and more heart. Of all the American movies released last year, it’s the only one which could - and perhaps should - have beaten The English Patient to Best Picture.

The fact that it wasn’t even nominated says a good deal about cultural conservatism in the USA, but it is no reflection on the talent and daring which went into its making. In the future, when its radical influence will have been felt on the next generation of film-makers, this will be seen as a high point in movies, and a revolution in the treatment of Shakespeare.

"What people forget is that Shakespeare was a relentless entertainer. When he played the Elizabethan stage, he was basically dealing with an audience of 3,000 drunken punters who were selling pigs and geese in the stalls. He played to everyone from the street sweeper to the Queen of England. And his style was to have stand-up comedy one moment, a song and then the highest tragedy right next to it. He was a rambunctious, sexy, violent, entertaining storyteller, and we've tried to be all those things."

(Baz Luhrmann)

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