William Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet

on November 01, 1996 by Ray Greene
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   It seems that every generation feels the need to recast "Romeo and Juliet" in its own image and likeness. In the '50s, when "juvenile delinquency" was post-war America's hot-button issue, Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein crossed the rudiments of Shakespeare's plot with the attitudes and language of "Rebel Without a Cause" and called it "West Side Story." In the '60s, reputed Shakespearean purist Franco Zeffirelli cast dewy-eyed teenagers Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in his more conventional production, then marketed it to the flower-power set as a mod rendering of eternal teenage torment and the "generation gap."
   Now comes "Strictly Ballroom" director Baz Luhrmann's '90s rendering of what he calls "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet," a gun-crazy, up-to-the-minute cine-collage with art direction that crosses "Reservoir Dogs" and "Mad Max," camerawork and editing blending Hong Kong action ace John Woo with Jean-Luc Godard, and a grafted-on recasting of Shakespeare's event structure by way of urban-themed '70s-era TV shows like "Baretta" and "Starsky and Hutch." Post-modernism and the odd inflection borrowed from MTV struggle for mastery here, creating visual pastiche of a very high order--a gleeful pictorial souffle comprised of contemporary movie violence and Elizabethan melodrama that succeeds quite nicely as long as Luhrmann sticks to his (very large) guns.
   What's for the most part missing, though, from this trigger-happy take on one of literature's great romances is something pretty fundamental: romance. Luhrmann is so preoccupied with the brute exhilaration of style and decor that he can scarcely be bothered with the more measured, poetic cadences of his source material.
   Nowhere is this more obvious than in the work of his two leads. As Romeo and Juliet, the youthful gorgeousness of Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes makes them visually perfect, which unfortunately seems to be almost all that has been asked of them. When it comes to hip wardrobes, cool lighting, and intricate staging, Luhrmann has spared no effort to make his leads look good, but when it comes to the rich, dense and lyrical pentameters of their lines, he leaves them to fend for themselves--a dangerous tactic even with experienced Shakespearean actors, and an all but fatal one for iambic novices like DiCaprio and Danes. The visual inventiveness of Luhrmann's staging is so ravishing that the at times tin-eared line readings of his principals seem like an annoying distraction, which is a fairly remarkable achievement of sorts, given the fact that they are reciting some of the most beautiful romantic poetry ever written.
   Ah well. Luhrmann's "R + J" may be full of sound and fury, but it doesn't signify nothing. As perhaps the most extreme movie modernization of a Shakespearean work, Luhrmann's "R + J" will very likely linger as an enduring curio in moviedom's Shakespearean canon. As a virtual who's who of nascent and emerging film stars, "R + J" will also almost certainly be looked back on as a stepping stone in some soon-to-be-hot movie careers. And as perhaps the most kinetic and visually daring major studio film of the year, "R + J" is almost sure to be remembered as the turning point for a brazen new cinematic talent: Luhrmann's. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, Brian Dennehy, John Leguizamo, Pete Postlethwaite, Paul Sorvino and Diane Venora. Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Written by Craig Pearce & Baz Luhrmann. Produced by Gabriella Martinelli and Baz Luhrmann. A Fox release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for scenes of contemporary violence and some sensuality. Running time: 120 min
Tags: Romeo and Juliet, Baz Luhrmann, remake, adaptation, contemporary, action, Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, Brian Dennehy, John Leguizamo, Pete Postlethwaite, Paul Sorvino, Diane Venora
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