Romeo + Juliet (1996), Baz Luhrmann

Miki Laval When I was 15, I knew exactly what loved looked like. Love was a slim blond boy with lanky legs, and hair I wanted to sweep back from the sides of his pretty face. He walked quickly and sat quickly. He came and left rooms quickly, every muscle always ready to go. To me, his speed was beauty and grace. Yet love was also languid and brooding, a poet, of course, who scribbled in a notebook between long stretches of staring into space while smoking a cigarette. In other words, this:

Sigh… To a 15-year old girl, one still plastering her walls with rock star posters, love sure looks a lot like a young Leonardo DiCaprico. He’s my generation’s definition of a heartthrob, and so a delicious fit for the world’s most epic teenage love story. Yes, he’d already shown rare talent in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and The Basketball Diaries, yet he and co-star Claire Danes were essentially darlings from TV land back in 1996. Then Romeo + Juliet hit theatres, and both actors proved they had serious chops, capable of moving from puppy love to the grand passion all tragedy requires. So how did the duo handle the Elizabethan dialogue? Well, at the time, there was a lot of clamour from outraged purists, but I’ve re-watched the film twice in the past few days and the Bard’s iambic pentameter sounds pretty good to my ear. Or I’ll say this, though neither Danes or DiCaprio have perfect elocution, the words flow with an intensity and ardor you don’t learn in theatre school. Besides, the point of Romeo and Juliet (the play) is that the central characters are children, and what acting skills Leo and Claire bring to the film is all in their baby faces, their creamy skin, their youth, not in their tongues. Yes, they are that pretty. Just watch them steal looks at each other in the infamous fish tank scene.
Forget Leo as Romeo. Isn’t Danes as Juliet melting loveliness? She clearly lusts for Romeo, yet despite what’s coming – a head spinning series of kisses that will leave her in a state of prickly heat – she keeps her wits about her. Later, the two swirl around each other from ballroom, to elevator, to balcony, to swimming pool, all the while bandying words back and forth with passion and spirit. Danes and DiCaprio understand that language is foreplay and an artful, erotic pleasure. To the naysayers who claim the dialogue isn’t up to snuff, I say these two make Shakespeare sound sexy. As for the film itself? There are throbs of neon in the night. Gobs of neon. Blazing fireworks explode across the black skies. There is all the razzle-dazzle, costumery, bubbles, bells and whistles anyone could dream of. Director Baz Luhrmann opens his film like the bullet-spraying master Tarantino; he choreographs the fight scenes as beautifully as John Woo, meanwhile, the frenzy of jump cuts make MTV (you remember MTV) seem like a stumble on Quaaludes. All this whirlwind action serves to convert the play’s intense emotions and language to vision. This is a play you see more than hear. And, boy, in the switch from the ear to the eye, does Luhrmann go wild with the modern images. Instead of gold, wads of cash are flaunted. Instead of swords, flashy semi-automatic pistols are drawn. Horses are doffed for retro convertibles that burn up the urban streets. It’s a nice touch too, having the two gang families dress in opposing “colours,” the Montagues favouring Hawaiian shirts, while the Capulets mobster up in dude suits. The film also features a gifted gaggle of players, most notably Harold Perrineau as a black gender-bending Mercutio, Pete Postlewaith as the splendid, scene-stealing Father Lawrence, and a corpolent Paul Sorvino who plays Juliet’s daddy like a bizarro wiseguy from Goodfellas. “Paulie may have moved slow, but it was only because Paulie didn’t have to move for anybody,” Henry Hill. Throw in some castles, some choppers, some bulletproof vests, and boom, Luhrmann shakes up a 400-year-old play without bowdlerizing or breaking its central and touching innocent idea. Which is what exactly? Only that love, sweet love, still blooms despite the violent world that usually steamrolls over it. The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is nothing new, of course. Besides the innumerable theatrical productions, it’s been made over as a ballet, as well as a Broadway musical, and now there’s a new British film adaptation based on a Julien Fowles screenplay. To the latter, I say, Yea Gads! go rent Baz Lurhmannn’s rabidly flamboyant version instead. The fervour and grace of his Romeo and Juliet will have you free falling into the giddy, head-tripping, crush of epic love.

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