William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1997

William Shakespeare's Romeo

Romeo and Juliet, helmed by "Strictly Ballroom"'s director Baz Luhrmann, is the Gen-X-John-Woo-MTV-school-of-filmmaking interpretation of the Bard's work. From the opening sequence of a television followed by a kinetic in-yer-face staccato of imagery, to the softer ballet-like camera work of the passion scenes between the two protagonists, R&J is definitely cinema of cool.

Instead of being a costume drama set in the 15th century, R&J is transposed to modern-day Verona Beach. However, Luhrmann has also thrown in some anachronistic elements from the original setting of R&J: instead of carrying swords, the members of the houses of Montague and Capulet carry 9mm semi-automatics, emblazoned with brand names such as "Sword" or "Rapier". Dialogue is faithful to the text in most respects (even the newscasters on the televisions in this anachronistic world speak in Elizabethan tongues). The church plays a prominent role in the modern-day Verona Beach, and the film is replete with religious imagery-- the young Juliet, instead of posters of New Edition on her wall, has a Madonna statue and Victorian images of angels; a large statue of Christ stands overlooking the city of Verona Beach; the guns which the Montagues and the Capulets carry are decorated with images of religious icons. Luhrmann also throws in little references that add some humour to the story: the Romeo 'n the boyz hang out at the Globe Theatre, a church choir breaks out into a hymnlike "When Doves Cry", and a Coca Cola ad is distorted to fit the Elizabethan atmosphere.

If there is anything to complain about, it would be the opening half hour of the film. Luhrmann throws everything but the kitchen sink in terms of filmmaking techniques, which can be overwhelming. You have Peckinpah-ish use of slow-motion, MTV-inspired rapid-fire editing with odd zoom-ins and outs, almost-slapstick use of speed-up sequences (a la "The Gods Must be Crazy"), a retro-seventies look in terms of colourful costume design (not unlike the retro-seventies look of "Strictly Ballroom") and subtitling, and a retro-eighties feel in terms of the over-acting by the supporting characters. However, once you pass this odd jumble of imagery and get into the story of Romeo and Juliet, the machine-gun barrage slows down to a more manageable pace.

In summary, R&J adds value by putting the play into a different context, and through the use of interesting symbolism and imagery, adds a whole new level of interpretation to this timeless classic. Definitely a must-see (and don't mind the teenyboppers sitting around you-- they just have an essay on R&J due next week for Grade 10 English).

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