|William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (Special Edition)|
|DVD Romantic Drama|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Monday, 11 March 2002|
Fans of Baz Luhrmann’s much-Oscar-nominated "Moulin Rouge" should enjoy the filmmaker’s 1996 adaptation of "William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet." True, the older film doesn’t pack the surprising punch of "Moulin Rouge," but it’s kind of hard for one of the world’s most famous texts to sneak up on anybody at this point. It’s to Luhrmann’s credit that his wild energy and colorful inventiveness is so robustly on view here; we may know where the story’s going, but it’s a fairly dazzling version all the same.
Luhrmann sets his new version of "Romeo + Juliet" in a contemporary alternate reality, a place called Verona Beach that somewhat resembles Miami in a state of perpetual Mardi Gras with a Renaissance social structure and guns that have manufacturers’ names like Swords and Daggers (a great boon to keeping the dialogue regarding weapons intact). At the start, viewers can be forgiven for wondering just how Luhrmann is going to pull this off. It’s not so much the whiplash switch in eras coupled with the traditional lines – though this in itself is an eye-popping leap – so much as the shift in tone. As with the later "Moulin Rouge," Luhrmann and co-screenwriter Craig Pearce indicate there’s tragedy to come at the outset, then kick off with a note of high-octane comic mania. It’s hard to envision how the movie is going to move from such a beginning to the emotionally affecting finale the piece requires, but the filmmakers and cast make the segue with such finesse that we don’t heed the shift until long after it has occurred.
Luhrmann and Pearce retain Shakespeare’s plot and dialogue – though they’ve trimmed it to a running time of approximately 120 minutes and done a bit of reshuffling. The Montagues and Capulets, those great houses equal in dignity, are business rivals, each with skyscrapers bearing their names. As Chapter 1 begins, a television approaches us from out of the void, its static resolving into the somber face of a newscaster who reports to us (using Shakespeare’s words) on the recent deaths of Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Juliet (Claire Danes). Subtitles over news footage identify the major players in the tragedy for us – and then we’re plunged headlong into this sprawling, brawling, fantastically colorful world.
There are some brilliant sound effects that probably work even better on the DVD than in the theatrical release. The first one is early on. We hear the newscaster’s somber spiel (delivering Shakespeare’s introduction) in the center channel in Chapter 1. As the prologue ends and we are drawn into the full world of the story, the rears kick in with the ambient sound of the streets of Verona, immersing us in the environment. In Chapters 5 and 6, a fireworks display is optically gorgeous and reproduced with pixel-perfect clarity – there are no detectable fragments or bleeds of even the tiny colored sparkles of light on my system – at the same time that the pyrotechnics sonically launch in the mains and come screaming to earth in the rears.
Use of dazzling color continues throughout the film, sometimes filling the frame, as in a drag performance by Mercutio (an animated Harold Perrineau) in Chapter 7, sometimes as punctuation, as in Chapter 8, when Romeo and Juliet first lock eyes in a sequence of pale blues interrupted by the bright yellow of a marine fish in a tank. Music in this scene is used to haunting effect, low and reverent in the rears and mains without touching the center channel, reserved here for the quiet with which the two lovers first behold one another. Chapter 14 has a lovely mix of ambient sounds, with the realistic clang of a metal gate, the lapping of water and very specific breathing sounds all coming together to create an engrossing aural atmosphere. Chapter 15 and 16 has inventive use of Prince’s "When Doves Cry" as sung by a boys’ choir, first angelically, then urgently. Chapter 16 also has some deliberately overexposed footage with more color punctuation – bright greens, this time – to emphasize the heat of the Miami-esque beach. Chapter 20 has quite a fight, with a climactic sandstorm blowing menacingly through mains and rears. There are congestive rumbles that rock the room, but these do not impinge on the clarity of dialogue, music or other ambient sounds. Chapter 21 has a very clever side to side sound effect as a car tumbles, interspersed with a skillfully specific sound as a gun hits the pavement. Later in the chapter, another bout of deliberately congested sound is used to denote emotional shock.
The DVD comes with a ton of extras. The audio commentary by director/co-writer Luhrmann, co-writer Pearce, cinematographer Don McAlpine and production designer Catherine Martin sounds like a happy, informative party and there are a myriad of behind-the-scenes featurettes. One of these, in the "Director’s Gallery," features Luhrmann talking about how he pitched his version of "Romeo and Juliet" to the studio. Luhrmann’s narrative is entertaining enough on its own, but as an added bonus, it features footage of an "audition" tape he made to persuade the backers that his vision would work. DiCaprio flew to Australia on his own dime and did the audition video with Luhrmann on spec, which speaks well of both the actor’s integrity and his enthusiasm for the project.
DiCaprio is a soulful, nearly saintly young Romeo, seemingly ready to die at the hands of Tybalt (a formidable John Leguizamo) rather than strike out at Juliet’s kinsman. DiCaprio conveys existential dissatisfaction and generalized sentiments of rebellion before his Romeo ever claps eyes on Juliet, making him the sensitive, brooding type romances are designed to tame – it’s a smart interpretive choice. Danes is a sparkling Juliet, full of youthful vitality, humor and yearning; her heartbreak over losing Romeo is wrenchingly accessible. The juxtaposition of Shakespearean speech and middle-class-to-street American accents is momentarily jarring, but quickly falls into place. Every part of the city and county has its own patois – why shouldn’t some regions adopt the Bard’s colloquialisms as their own?
The cinematography by McAlpine, the muscular editing by Jill Bilcock and most of all the continuously intoxicating production design by Martin are all indispensable to the film’s impact. Martin’s setpieces are practically characters in their own right; there may or may not have been more touching death scenes in other versions of "Romeo + Juliet," but it’s hard to imagine any to match the breathtaking vision of the Capulet tomb here. For that matter, a transposition of a few lines in the tomb scene is an ingenious touch that lends an extra measure of poignancy and creates a singular sense of completion for the production.