William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996)

"Romeo and Juliet" has had many incarnations. I still have part of the balcony scene memorized from high school English class. And I've seen the 1968 Franco Zefferelli version where you see Olivia Hussey's bosoms and Leonard Whiting standing naked in the window. I've missed, however, most of the other versions, including some silent ones, clunky early ones with old actors, the ballet, and some freer adaptations like West Side Story and others.

William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet is a fine film. For those of you who have not seen Strictly Ballroom, Australian director Baz Luhrmann's wonderful comic romance about professional ballroom dancing, it may be a bit jarring to experience a Baz Luhrmann film--so many bits of R+J played for their comic effect, the elder characters treated like buffoons who don't "get it," and the constant blare of "cool" music. It is jarring, and it is meant to be so. Luhrmann's film work, so far at least, has been about youth, and how in its optimism, energy, and inexperience, it is so ultimately human and real. That's why he's perfect for this modern adaptation of William Shakespeare's play.

Luhrmann also understands what the point of an updating of a classic work is. Of course, it's a completely different approach, than, say, Kenneth Branagh takes when adapting such works as "Henry V" or "Hamlet." The point is not to honor every intention of the author, but to reveal new things both about the work and about the time we live in. So Shakespeare purists may not like this film. However, what Luhrmann does is truly a work of genius.

Luhrmann sets R+J in a mythical Florida town called Verona Beach. This town is completely created artistically by the filmmakers--you can't visit it. It was filmed in Mexico City and in locations around Veracruz, Mexico, but the way it is handled, it becomes a real place to the audience. Towering over the city are a blocky stone Virgin Mary at the Chapel Monument and two great skyscrapers, marked "Montague" and "Capulet."

The young members of each faction carry guns emblazoned with family crests and duel openly in the streets. The story unfolds quickly, wittily, and touchingly, not weighed down, but rather wonderfully revealed, by the Elizabethan dialogue of the characters. Yes, the text has been cut, some have said too much, but I felt that the film worked. I could, I suppose, go back and get my copy of the play and bring it in and mark all the cuts, but that would hardly tell me anything about whether it worked. I think it did, quite well.

Another thing that Luhrmann has done in his handling of the story and the language is to exploit new meanings of old words to great effect. In doing so, he rather disarmingly takes advantage of the great mystery of language, which almost never takes away a meaning or assigns a new one to a word without enriching rather than impoverishing its power.

Specifically, in a device which works quite well, Luhrmann changes Mercutio, Romeo's best friend, into a black, dreadlocked youth who dresses in drag, uses drugs with Romeo, and is ultimately the catalyst for the second half of the story. John McEnery did a superb, haunting job with the "conventional" Mercutio in Franco Zefferelli's version, so I was both dreading and looking forward to Harold Perrineau's (of Smoke) take on him in this version. He went far beyond my expectations and alleviated all my fears. Perrineau is alternately grave and insanely blissful in what is ultimately a very enlightening deconstruction of the character, which takes place without relieving him of any of his deep reality.

Other notable performances are the two leads, Claire Danes (of ABC's much-missed "My So-Called Life"), who will one day rule the world and Leonardo DiCaprio, Oscar nominee for What's Eating Gilbert Grape? They both perform well, though DiCaprio seems just slightly, very slightly perhaps, out of his depth. Still, whatever he lacks is more than made up for by the grand vision of Luhrmann and his co-screenwriter Craig Pearce.

Links for William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet

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