William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” has been told countless times, in pretty much every form possible. Director Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation updated the tragic love story to present day, with one kicker: he retained much of Shakespeare’s original dialogue. The result is the dizzying, highly ambitious Romeo + Juliet. This iteration stars a pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio and a fresh-faced Claire Danes as the titular characters. For my review of the film, as well as the various new bonus features included on the Blu-ray, hit the jump.
Luhrmann’s film is the second in his self-described “Red Curtain Trilogy”. It follows his feature film debut Strictly Ballroom, and precedes his masterful Moulin Rouge!. Romeo + Juliet updates the Shakespearean tale to modern day Verona Beach, in Miami. The Capulets and the Montagues are wealthy, warring families inhabiting a city where seemingly every citizen carries a gun with the brand name “Sword”. Joining DiCaprio and Danes in the film is John Leguizamo (Ice Age) as Tybalt, Harold Perrineau (Lost) as Mercutio, and Paul Rudd (yes, that Paul Rudd) as Paris.
While Luhrman attempts to stay true to Shakespeare’s story by maintaining his words, this devotion also serves as one of the films biggest shortcomings. The iambic pentameter proves to be too much for many of the young actors. They’re saying the right words, but you’re not entirely sure that they understand what it is that they’re saying. However, one actor in the film executes the Shakespearean dialogue with expert precision. That would be Pete Postlethwaite, who plays Father Lawrence. The film is elevated each time he’s on screen, and it’s quite possible that the lack of expertise of the other actors would not be quite as noticeable if he weren’t there to put them all to shame.
The MTV-style editing of the film also proves to be a bit of a hindrance. The first scene of the film alone almost looks like Michael Bay directed it, with the abundance of smash cuts and “whoosh’s”. Though this style makes sense with the opening of Luhrmann’s far superior Moulin Rouge!, I didn’t quite understand the purpose of it in this retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedy. If it was meant to cue me into the fact that this wasn’t a traditional re-telling of the Shakespearean play, it certainly did the trick. However, the amount of cuts quickly diminishes over the course of the film, as Luhrmann calms down a bit when the star-crossed lovers enter the story.
Nevertheless, Romeo + Juliet is not without its merits. I have to admit, the film is nothing if not entertaining. It works well as a companion piece to the original; an exercise in adaptation. It’s fascinating to see the characters personified in the modern era. Luhrmann clearly knows the source material well, and it’s interesting to see his version of what Mercutio would be like in the 1990’s. Whatever the film’s shortcomings, Luhrmann undoubtedly knows and respects the original author. His inclusion of popular music that surrounds the film is a nod to Shakespeare himself, who would fill his plays with the most popular tunes of the day in order to make the story more familiar to the audience.
The picture quality on the Blu-ray itself is outstanding. Luhrmann personally supervised the high definition transfer of the film, and his care for the quality of the product is evident. There are also a couple of brand new special features created specifically for the Blu-ray that are quite extensive. First is a picture-in-picture behind the scenes look at the making of the flick. As the film plays, behind the scenes video, storyboards, and stills appear in a PIP window that moves around the screen so as not to obstruct the viewer from faces or other important details of the given scene that is playing. While the PIP is going, it is supplemented by a new audio commentary track from Luhrmann, production designer Catherine Martin, director of photography Donald M. McAlpine, and co-writer Craig Pierce. In the track, Luhrman gets a chance to defend some of his choices he made for the film (ever wonder why they made Mercutio a drag queen?), and I have to say that my opinion was actually softened a bit after hearing the filmmakers speak.
The other brand new special feature is the 49-minute documentary Romeo + Juliet: The Music, which is a surprisingly fascinating and extensive documentary on the journey of choosing and obtaining music rights for the film and the importance of music to the film as a whole. The disc also includes a couple of b-roll videos of uncut rehearsals on the set of the film.
So, here’s my advice: watch Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 masterpiece Romeo and Juliet for a faithful adaptation of the Shakespeare play, then watch Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet as a fun exercise in modern adaptation. At the very least, you’ll be entertained. After all, isn’t that what Shakespeare was all about?