I love Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet with all my heart, I truly do. The romantic imagery, the killer soundtrack, the stylish and eye-catching aesthetic, all of these add up to a unique and stunning cinematic experience. Why is it then, that if asked to score it, I would probably only give it a 7/10, 3 1/2 stars if you will. How can I deliver such passionate praise yet provide such a humble critical score? That’s exactly what I want to explore in this series, the idea of a flawed masterpiece, a film that we may love and hold dear, yet recognise the unmistakable flaws buried within, and where better to start than the divisive adaptation of William Shakespeare’s classic?
O Romeo, Romeo
Let’s begin this analysis with some praise, regarding perhaps the most flawless thing about this film: Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo. Leo gives off effortless charm, delivering his Shakespearean lines in a way that helps them blend seamlessly into the modern-day setting, not seeming at all out of place. His style is also unquestioned, with a variety of iconic looks that are almost instantly recognisable, be it the slightly scruffy Hawaiian shirt and trousers, the Goodfella-Esque shirt, jacket and holster, or perhaps the most iconic of them all, the knight costume, a glorious throwback to the plays more traditional original setting. He also undergoes the deepest and most believable character arc in the entire film, beginning as a tortured romantic, uninterested by the infamous family feud he’s caught within, instead focusing on winning the heart of his current fling Rosaline. When Romeo falls for the beautiful and equally naïve Juliet of the opposing gang (portrayed with unflinching innocence by Claire Danes) however, he unknowingly dooms himself, finding it harder and harder to escape the feudal violence that is gradually consuming his world around him. He hopes to build a bridge between families by marrying Juliet and proving love can conquer all, but soon finds it cannot and is forced to face the reality that some would rather thrive on the suffering and violence than romance and beauty, succumbing to its dark call with a vengeful killing that leads to his banishment. His true downfall comes following the news of Juliet’s death, however, which sees him more desperate than ever, threatening police and taking hostages just for the chance to see Juliet one last time. The very love Romeo hoped would be his liberation, ends up being nothing more than his destruction…
O Brawling Love…
Whilst I have nothing but praise for Romeo, however, it is within the films central romance that the flaws begin to show. Now I have no issue here with either of our stars, both delivering their charming little Shakespearean performances with hormonal glee. No, the biggest issue here is probably the same reason so many people are drawn to the film: it’s based on a play written in 1597, yet it’s set in modern-day. There should be a certain inevitability that not all the themes might have aged so well. This is not to disrespect Luhrmann’s period translation in any way: for the most part, it’s done pretty well, but some things do not age no matter how much colour and music you throw at them. Shakespeare’s crazy little notion of two lovers marrying each other after only having met for a couple of hours might have worked back then, but now, honestly, it just seems lazy. We see no relationship development between the two apart from the fact that they both think the other is really sexy and want to kiss each other loads. No amount of poetic dialogue can make up for that.
Luckily for us, Baz is known for his style, and applies it to this doomed romance tenfold. He utilizes romantic imagery as a means to convey the feelings between the two, treating the Shakespearean dialogue as more of a form of poetic flirting than anything. It’s in the moments where nothing is being said where perfection is present. Take the famous fish-tank scene: completely dialogue-free, yet one of the best scenes in the entire film. How? Baz Luhrmann, that’s how. In the scene in question, the stars lay eyes on each other for the first time, but not within the same room, no, instead they are separated by a gorgeously aquatic fish tank. They share various looks with each other, curious at first, with Romeo making the occasional cheeky smile. You seem them gradually grow infatuated with each other, this barrier representing the separation of houses, and also making the idea of being with each other more tantalizing. Luhrmann takes the “love at first sight” trope and makes it believable through the idea of separation and desire. It is this romanticism that allows Baz to carry the film through its various narrative shortcomings, providing us with some crackingly shot kisses and some very cute couple moments. The lack of emotional attachment to the characters does make it slightly harder for their cruel fate to consume you, but there’s a montage designed to get the tears flowing, so no worries there.
A Plague On Both Your Houses
Let’s take the focus away from the central leads for the moment, and set our eyes on Harold Perrineau’s party Mercutio, a character quite hard to pin down: on one hand, he’s a cross-dressing, drug-taking party animal who likes to lip-sync Kym Mazelle songs. On the other, he’s also a completely disillusioned nihilist who cares about nothing. Now whilst this may sound like the recipe for an intriguing character, in truth Perrineau manages to provide no balance between the two personalities, with far much more time given to the partying rogue than the dreading cynic, a side only shown in two scenes, one of which is his death! The famous “a plague on both your houses” scene is meant to represent Mercutio and the other characters giving up on the world, a turning point if you will, yet it’s hard to truly believe this when he was literally kicking the living daylights out of Tybalt in defence of Romeo moments before. How can a glass slash make you have a complete character-breaking personality change. This may only seem like a minor gripe, yet the poor handling of this moment in the film actually reveals one of its greatest flaws: Baz doesn’t truly understand the play he’s adapting. It’s a hard truth to swallow, but in this scene, he gives you no choice but to.
Lost In Translation
Okay so what do I actually mean by this bold claim: how could a director not understand a play when he’s choosing to adapt it to film. Surely that would seem essential, right? Well, I feel like he understands some of it. The key themes clearly make their way into the film, through the imagery I described earlier, and all the important scenes are put into a modern-day context that allows them to make sense. I just don’t think the characters and dialogue fit in very well, don’t mesh with his vision. The actors recite their lines with clarity, no doubt, but the deliverance sometimes seems out of place, or misunderstood, like they’re only saying it because its in the script of the original play. Baz’s faith in Shakespeare’s centuries-old writing to fit into a truly modern setting is misplaced, and his refusal to change it or edit it in anyway way is really more of a hindrance than a help. There are exceptions, such as the perfect “you kiss by the book” line in the elevator. It teases Romeo in a way that makes sense now, something someone would say in this day and age. Then you look at Mercutio’s deluded rants, though, and it’s clear that really they have no place in Luhrmann’s love-fantasy, only Shakespeare’s.
Romeo + Juliet is a tragedy, anyone would tell you so. However, the biggest tragedy present in the film isn’t really the doomed fate of the star-crossed lovers, it’s what this film could’ve been if Baz had just been that one bit bolder, willing to step out of Shakespeare’s shadow to really fulfil his own vision (as he would in his equally controversial adaption of The Great Gatsby), instead of relying on the recital of famous lines that belong more in a classroom than on the director’s glossy silver screen. Alas, he chose not to be, and the film paid the price, with tonal and stylistic inconsistencies abound. It’s almost ironic, as even though there’s plenty of action in Romeo + Juliet, the biggest battle in the film is the blatant clash of ideals between Luhrmann and Shakespeare, a director far too afraid to teach an old dog new tricks…