Romeo + Juliet

22 May


There are few more famous works of fiction than William Shakespeare’s iconic tragedy, Romeo + Juliet. Having this week seen The Great Gatsby at the cinema, I decided to delve a little into director Baz Luhrmann’s back catalogue to check out his adaptation of this classic tale.

The story will need little introduction, I’m sure, but as is the done thing with these reviews, I’ll give it one. In Verona live two wealthy families, the Montague family and the Capulet family. They don’t get on – indeed, the film opens with a shootout between two factions of the families. Shortly after, Romeo (Leonardo Di Caprio) is introduced as a young man of the Montague family. He is suffering from some level of depression, owing to his love of a girl called Rosalind.

To help him get over her, his friend Mercutio (Harold Perrineau) convinces him to gatecrash a Capulet party. Once there, young Romeo meets Juliet (Claire Danes) and we have a classic case of love at first sight. They soon realise their predicament; they are members of rival families, and so their love is forbidden. That doesn’t stop our doe-eyed protagonists doing everything they can to be together though. What follows is the tale of their love, in which tears are cried, blood is shed and some exceptional dialogue is recited.


As I recently discovered when watching The Great Gatsby, casting is a strong point of Baz Luhrmann. His attempts to modernise this story (it’s set in modern Verona, but keeps Shakespeare’s writing) are helped greatly by some fantastic choices for the lead roles. I found very quickly when watching this movie that I could not imagine anybody else playing Romeo – in a story hundreds of years old, few can have epitomised the man as well as Di Caprio does. Still establishing himself in his profession at the time of this film’s release in 1996, his fresh-faced, boyish looks are perfect for the role. His delivery of some glorious Shakespeare prose is right on the mark.

Clare Danes, too, fits her role brilliantly. Just as he did with Carey Mulligan in Gatsby, Luhrmann found a leading lady who could so elegantly portray a conflicted character. I always find that the test of any good characterisation is in how we respond when a character suffers their conflict. Well, in Romeo + Juliet, the characters are developed well enough, and acted with enough brilliance, to make me care for them. Upon receiving bad news, Di Caprio’s gut-wrenching breakdown and subsequent decision making had me feeling sad and tense. To get this from a story that I already knew felt like an achievement from both Luhrmann and Di Caprio; there were moments when I wanted to shout at the screen “DON’T DO IT ROMEO” – despite knowing what was coming next. Similarly, Danes elicits a string of wavering emotions as she guides Juliet through turbulent times in trying to be with her true love.

The supporting cast is also excellent. Perhaps the two stand-out supporting actors are John Leguizamo, in the role of Capulet bad-boy Tybalt, and Harold Perrineau as Mercutio. They are the extreme representation of the feuding families; Tybalt is bloodthirsty and Mercutio has no fear of him. For me, Perrineau’s performance is almost a show-stealer, but quite understandably can’t elevate himself above the quality of the leads. He is magnificent though.


Luhrmann’s approach to this movie is certainly ambitious. Cited as being Romeo + Juliet for the ‘MTV generation’, I certainly hits the mark in appealing to its target audience. I had been told that the soundtrack was excellent; personally I found it pretty forgettable. That’s not to criticise it at all, it compliments the film and the director’s vision of the story perfectly, but I can’t say it’s a stand-out highlight of the movie. The film is extremely bright and colourful – in many ways it’ a very welcome attack on the senses. There is never a moment in which there is not something interesting to look at on screen. This included the men often wearing unbuttoned, gaudy flowery shirts that portray the fashion of the time well, but look a little dated now. One suspects Luhrmann will have been aware of this at the time though, and in creating a picture of this nature, he surely achieved his ambition of appealing to a young audience.

Fashion choices aside then, this version of a famous tale is grand in scale and realises the vision of the director superbly. Aside from the early shoot-out where I felt things were a little too cartoonish, there are few faults that can be picked with the movie. It grows in stature as it progresses, aided by tremendous performances all round, particularly from its young leads. The delivery of Shakespearean prose takes a little while to adjust to, but is fantastic. At times, Shakespeare’s dialogue is breathtaking – it’s easy to see why this is revered to this as day as one of the greatest tragedies ever written. Baz Luhrmann’s retelling is a film well worth seeing.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: