Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Film review: Romeo + Juliet (1996), directed by Baz Luhrmann

Once upon a time, someone said that Moulin Rouge! (also directed by Luhrmann) is the sort of film you either love or hate. We were talking about film reviews in class, and the person reviewing it hated it. My expression was probably aghast, because I love that film. The whimsical style and the reinvention of modern songs is absolutely amazing … but I can see her point now. While I won’t agree with her with regards to Moulin Rouge!, I will apply that criticism to Romeo + Juliet.

The story was penned by William Shakespeare, of course, and is that of two rival families, the Capulets and the Montagues, who have hated each other for as long as anyone cares to remember. The daughter of one family and the son of another fall in love with each other against the odds and that it doesn’t end well. Hell, even I knew as much, and this is actually my first ever viewing of this particular story, regardless of adaptation.

So, set in modern day Verona Beach, which looks like it’s meant to be in California as opposed to 16th Century Italy, we have handsome, young Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) who’s a Capulet or a Montague (I could look up which, but I don’t actually care), and who’s best friends with Michael off of Lost (Harold Perrineau) and is some sort of apprentice or what have you with Father Laurence (Pete Postlethwaite).

In the other corner, Juliet (Claire Danes), whose parents want her to marry a well-to-do young man (Paul Rudd), has Miriam Margolyes for a nurse and John Leguizamo as cousin Tybalt. At least I think that’s the right way around. After the first ten minutes, I sort of found decorating a gingerbread house more engaging …

Because yes, while the whimsical way worked so well for Moulin Rouge!, it didn’t do the story of Romeo and Juliet any favours. Neither did the modern setting. What I expected of this film, not knowing more than it starred Leo DiCaprio (everyone got their knickers in a twist over him back in the day) and Claire Danes and the basic “it’s Romeo & Juliet“, was a modern adaptation. Look at ShakespeaRetold (or Shakespeare Re-told) – those stories are modern interpretations of Shakespeare, and they really work. Romeo + Juliet is only modern inasmuch as they have cars, bikinis, guns and police helicopters. The language is still Shakespearean 16th Century English, and I have a problem with that.

Not the language itself. If it had been set in the 16th Century, it’s fair enough, but when everything else has been modernised, I expect the dialogue to be modern, and all the rest of it. Not to have a 16th Century play plonked down on a beach in California and left to its own devices in front of a camera. Stylistically brilliant as it may be, I didn’t like it. It could have been a brilliant modern take on Shakespeare, bringing the Bard to the unwashed masses, but when it’s simply an old play with modern actors in a modern setting, as opposed to a modern film version of a classic play … no, I just didn’t like it. I wanted to like it, because this is one of the classic love stories of all time, but no such luck.

And that’s even before pointing out the holes, such as “why didn’t she just say that she was already married? Problem solved!” or “they could’ve just called”. Granted, this was a time before everyone had a mobile phone, and Facebook hadn’t even been invented, because Zuckerberg wasn’t even a teenager at the time. (He was 12, I was 14. I now feel quite old and slightly bitter I didn’t turn out to be an Internet multi-millionaire.) So yeah. Either you update it properly, or you let it be a period piece, not somewhere inbetween. At least that’s my preference.

Still, the film did very well – many thanks to a brilliant cast, and let’s face it, DiCaprio’s pretty face. Funny that, I’ve always felt more inclined to punch that pretty face rather than covering it with kisses, but there’s no denying that boy’s a brilliant actor, as if What’s Eating Gilbert Grape didn’t make that abundantly clear three years earlier. (Come to think of it, that film must’ve been a 1990s fangirl fantasy, as it also stars Johnny Depp. Who is also an exceptional actor with a pretty face, except I’ve never felt an aversion to him.)

I’m a bit torn. On the one hand, the acting is great and the scenography and/or filmography is striking, but I just can’t get over the way it was made. A hesitant 2.8 out of 5 swimming pools, I think. Could easily have been at least a 4 if it had been completely modernised, but alas, it wasn’t, and I’m not too keen on the story either.

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