Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, John Leguizamo
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Genre: Drama | Romance
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Back to the 90s. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Baz Luhrman’s second film in his red curtain trilogy, by far his best, in my opinion (not according to Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB though), and one of the best film soundtracks ever created. Luhrman sought three different themes for each film, dance, language, and song. What he created in Romeo & Juliet was a hyper-violent, stylistic, modernization of Shakespeare’s most popular play, the tragic love affair of two youngsters (she’s 12 in the play and he’s 17), who fall in love at first sight, and stupidly kill themselves because they can’t be together. The actual thought of it now as a 29 year old woman, makes me laugh, but when I was 16, I knew this play by heart, and I had seen the movie countless times.
The cinematography in certain scenes is forever burned into my memory, Talkshow Host playing by Radiohead, as the warm sun peeks through Sycamore Grove and DiCaprio walks, cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Or, Mercutio’s death scene, again on Verona Beach, at Sycamore Grove, a storm brewing (a real storm, a hurricane in Mexico) as he screams “A plague O’ both your houses,” repeatedly. Much of the movie was filmed in parts of Mexico, certain scenes give the movie its seedy, otherworldly look. The opening scenes at the gas station with the Montague, Capulet brawl, still manage to impress me, John Leguizamo’s flamboyantly choreographed moves as the Prince of Cats, with his gun, the costumes, and subtly poking at how insulting the biting of the thumb could be to gangsters. The sign swinging above, reading “add fuel to your fire,” is a line lifted from another Shakespeare play, in fact, peppered through the film, every colourful, pop-art-esque advertisement seen, are lines from other Shakespeare plays. This is how in-depth Luhrman takes his research. For those who hated his version of Gatsby, I urge you to read an interview with him, where he talks about how deep his research into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life went, and those scenes that were different from the book, how they were lifted from his other works, or his life itself.
Shakespeare was known for his tragic comedies, his dramatic plays, that always seeped in subtle laughter, and what I loved about Luhrman’s take was that in the end, it was the postal service, the ever unreliable federal delivery system that causes Romeo to miss the letter from the priest, and brings him back from exile, to die next to Juliet. If only they had placed that “we were here” note, a little higher on the door. I cackled, immediately thinking about all the times I’ve had to argue with them over the phone, to get a package resent. It was nowhere near as dire a situation as Romeo’s, but I needed those shoes! DiCaprio and Danes’ acting abilities manage to sell their quicklit romance, a beautifully, and difficultly shot scene at the Capulet’s party, where they notice each other through the fishtank as “Kissing You” plays. Again, more than anything, I associate each song playing at each moment in the film, it is as important as the dialogue with every Luhrman film. Even during the soft, quiet credits after the reporter finishes the news, and Radiohead’s exquisite “Exit Music (For a Film),” plays. Sometimes the acting was brutally overdone, but I believe this to be intentional, it is based on a Shakespearean play, after all. The plot may be ridiculous, and actor Pete Postlethwaite may be the only one actually speaking in Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, but almost 20 years later, I would still recommend this film and its two soundtracks to anyone.
Romeo & Juliet is a hyper-violent, stylistic, modernization of Shakespeare's most popular play.