Romeo + Juliet (1996) — The soundtrack had a movie, you know

“Romeo, Romeo, whyfore art thou Romeo?”

Rich’s rating: (Romeo + Juliet) x Tragedy + Cool = This film

Rich’s review: As I’ve mentioned before in my reviews (particularly with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), my start with the works of the Great Bard wasn’t a happy one. This was mainly because my foolish English teacher decided to make us read a Shakespearian comedy, which are about as funny and appealing as having clumsy dental work done. Fortunately, a couple of years later a far more wise and sensible teacher of mine realised that what kids really want these days are stories which involve violence and death, so we studied Macbeth, and I learned that this Shakespeare guy wasn’t that bad after all.

In fact, between then and now, I’ve managed to read most of the tragedies and histories, seen most of the decent screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s works (though I’ve deliberately avoided Mel Gibson’s Hamlet on the grounds that it would probably just make angry and nauseous at the same time), and even seen a few of his plays performed in theatres by respectable actors and everything. It’s got so bad that I can now laugh at jokes with Shakespearian references (as opposed to jokes actually in Shakespeare’s plays, which require a certain pomposity or some kind of sense of humour lobotomy for people to find amusing). I can even fairly accurately quote whole swathes of Shakespearian dialogue or speeches off the top of my head, which as a kid I always thought was the height of pretension.

I’d say it’s hard to deny that old Shakey knew how to write a story. They do say that there are only 12 stories in the world, and Shakespeare wrote them all (or some nonsense like that). But regardless of the truth or not of that statement, Hollywood, ever keen to steal a good story when they see one, has produced any number of updated, reworked, or revised versions of Shakespearian work over the years. Some are great (I don’t think anyone would argue West Side Story with me there, and also the Ian McKellan Richard III is equally fantastic) and some not so great.

So where does Baz Luhrmann’s reworking of the world’s classic tragic love story come on that “great” sliding scale? Quite unashamedly, I’m happy to call it awesome in every respect — despite the fact that Leo DiCaprio is in it.

See, because back in the heady days of 1996, no-one really knew who Leo was. I’d seen him in precisely one film before this one (The Quick and The Dead with Sharon Stone) and so had yet to be exposed to the Mass DiCaprio Overload Effect that would follow after Titanic. Because he certainly wasn’t the big Hollywood name he is now back then, he was just another young, fresh faced actor looking for a big break. As a result, I was able to appreciate Romeo + Juliet when it first came out without having to get around my visceral loathing of the sprout-faced little goon.

On top of that, the rest of the cast are pretty close to fantastic as well, with special kudos reserved for John Leguizamo as Tybalt and Harold Perrineau Jr. as Mercutio, who are locked in fierce competition for the title of “Coolest character in the entire film.”

If you don’t know the plot to Romeo + Juliet, then shame on you — get yourself back to school and demand that they prepare you better for the world. However, here’s the gist: The son and daughter of a pair of feuding families fall in love, defy their parents and get married, which causes all manner of death, duals, shrieking, banishments, sulking, and a sudden upswing in the sales of poison and daggers, ending when the situation has got just about as bad as it can possibly get for everyone involved. Such is the nature of tragedy, I guess. This isn’t Bambi.

What makes this version great in my opinion is the super-frantic technicolour updating it gets at the hands of director Baz Luhrmann. Not only is most of the original dialogue intact and the story unchanged in any major way, but the addition of the stunning visuals and clever thematic touches (to avoid changing the references to “swords” and “daggers” in the dialogue, all the guns that people use are named after the relevant pointy weapons of antiquity, for instance) mean that even if you get lost in the “whyfores” and “foreasmuches” of the dialogue, the on-screen action alone will keep you on board with what’s roughly happening long enough for the syllable count to subside a little and for you to understand what people are saying again.

The music video pacing, the overblown but amazing sets, and fantastic updating all complement a story that was a classic hundreds of years before Hollywood was even conceived. If the original R&J; was really nice ice-cream, Baz Luhrmann has added sprinkles, chocolate sauce, whipped cream and a cherry on top; he’s made a good thing great.

So, discard your Shakespearian inhibitions, and go rent this film.

Didja notice?

  • How cool everyone’s guns look with the family crests on? I mean, seriously, they’re pretty smart.
  • All the posters and slogans which keep showing up bearing lines from other Shakespeare plays?
  • To say that Paris is the most eligible bachelor in Verona, he’s quite the nerd when it comes to the dance floor. And seriously, who goes to a fancy dress party as an astronaut?

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