Retrospective Film Review: Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet

There is no shortage of screen adaptations of Shakepeare’s tragic love story ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ From first gracing the silver screen in 1936, to an animated twist in ‘Gnomeo & Juliet,’ to a 2013 adaptation that starred Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld as the star crossed lovers, there has certainly been an array of different takes on the Bard’s most famous tale. The standout film, however, has got to be 1996’s spectacular ‘Romeo + Juliet,’ which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Director Baz Luhrmann channelled his trademark extravagance to create an adaptation both radically removed from the play, with an update to 90’s Verona Beach, while simultaneously creating the best rendition of the iconic play, capturing the emotion, themes, and even Shakepeare’s language in his adaptation.

Modernising the Renaissance play while retaining Shakespearian dialogue was a stroke of genius. Transporting the tale into the 90s and centring it on Mafia-style warfare between rival families the Montagues and the Capulets completely refreshes the iconic story, giving it a whole new appeal that no doubt captured the interest of younger audiences. Staying true to the language of the original play may have seemed like an odd idea, one that couldn’t possibly work. But work it does, and brilliantly so, with Shakespeare’s verse naturally flowing from the actor’s mouths, their elaborate speech perfectly suiting the hyper-real setting. What’s more, the modernised location and mannerisms make Shakespeare’s language all the more accessible. This has certainly ensured increased engagement with the original play from a younger generation, with this stylish, cool, funny, and of course, elaborate adaptation. Luhrmann plays on Renaissance conventions even more with cheeky nods to the past, naming the brands of the character’s guns after older weapons: ‘Dagger’ and ‘Sword.’

cms-image-004583511 In addition to the Luhrmann’s innovative method of adaptation, the film is beautifully shot and has a gorgeous style. Luhrmann is well known for his glamorous, over the top, truly spectacular filmmaking. From ‘Moulin Rouge’ to ‘The Great Gatsby,’ he directs bold, theatrical, highly dramatic, and visually stunning films. They’re often home to large parties, dancing, and flashy settings. ‘Romeo + Juliet’ had no shortage of this, with humorously exaggerated performances in the gang warfare scenes, an elaborate costume party, and gorgeous visuals. At the costume party one of the most visually beautiful meet-cutes in cinema plays out: Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Juliet (Claire Danes) catching each other’s eye through a bright blue fish tank. The film is also full of religious iconography, tacky clothes and props that somehow seem cool, and those captivating neon lights and candles that line the church were a supposed dead Juliet lays.

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All the visual glitz and glamour, however, doesn’t hinder either the poetics of Shakespeare’s language, or the whirlwind of emotions and ultimate tragedy of the story. Throughout the film emotions are raw and extreme, from the dizzying highs of love to devastating lows. We really feel the chemistry between DiCaprio and Danes as the titular lovers, perfectly portraying the sweet naivety and reckless abandon of first love. The iconic scene where Romeo goes to see Juliet, who he believes to be dead, having not received the letter telling him it’s all a ruse, is as heartbreaking as ever. DiCaprio’s performance is brilliant as he mourns his love and takes his own life, just as she awakes. There’s that split second after he’s sipped the vial of poison when he realises she is awake, and his expression is completely devastating.

With ‘Romeo + Juliet’s’ innovative combination of Shakespearian language in a modernised setting, fantastic performances portraying raw emotion, stunning aesthetics, and Luhrmann’s trademark theatrical directorial style, this is no doubt the best adaptation of the Renaissance play. Furthermore, it’s a sparkling, captivating, and electrifying film in its own right, a rollercoaster of emotions with glorious highs and lows.

Watch the trailer for ‘Romeo + Juliet’ below: