in fair Verona
So I watched Romeo and Juliet the other day. Not just any, Romeo and Juliet, however, but Baz Luhrmann’s quirky work of art. Certainly, I should have probably watching it a long time ago, but anyone who has ever heard my thoughts on the play understands why I hadn’t. That’s not to say I’ve never seen a production of it; I’ve seen several. And I’ve read the play several times and studied it. But it wasn’t until I saw a production of it a couple of years ago that I came to a depth of realization that put the play in a completely different light for me. More on that later. Anyway, I had numerous thoughts as I watched it, and after I had let it soak in a bit, so I thought I’d share a few:
*Leonardo diCaprio is a much better actor than he sometimes seems. His facial expression is quite believable, and his vocal inflection piercing. For the first time since…well, ever…I wanted this Romeo to win. This is the movie that should overshadow Titanic in every way. Seriously. The scene where he endeavors not to fight Tybalt and loses Mercutio in the process is compelling.
*When this film first came out, I remember very vividly some vitriolic criticism of the fact that although he modernized the setting of the play, Luhrmann retained the original text of the play. Now that I’ve seen it, I have one reaction to this: Critics who said this—you haven’t the most miniscule idea what you are talking about. It was brilliant. Luhrmann clearly understands that with Shakespeare, the text is paramount. The text is the setting, the characters, the motivations—it’s all there. The actors do a superb job of making each line their own, embracing the power of Shakespeare’s words and letting them work as they should. I found none of the imagery stilted. Instead of actual daggers and swords, of course, the characters carried pistols with brand and model names of “Dagger” and “Sword.” For many directors this would be a stretch, but Luhrmann is all about visual metaphor, and this connection works in his world of double-edged images. The marriage of Shakespeare’s words in a modern world is startling and compelling, and Luhrmann makes it work almost effortlessly.
*This film is visually brilliant. But that was no surprise.
*I will admit to being moderately skeptical of the singing. I wasn’t sure how the music and singing would work, since R&J isn’t a musical, per se. The music is judiciously used, though. Only once did I find myself distracted by a song, and when it happened it’s because I was noticing the irony and symbolism. Of course, that means that it might be an overplayed moment, or I could’ve just been paying too much attention. Haha.
*Luhrmann makes a very interesting choice near the end of this play. If you haven’t seen the movie, and you have somehow lived in a cocoon and don’t know what happens at the end, STOP READING. How’s that for a spoiler alert? Luhrmann does what I have never seen any production do: compresses the death scenes. This was honestly the first time I really sympathized with Juliet. Instead of Juliet waking to find Romeo dead, she wakes an instant too late to stop him drinking the poison, interacting with him as he dies. The pathos of this scene is phenomenal. His directing choice added a completely new dimension to the entire section of the play.
*And now we come to the part where I think Luhrmann does fail. His film fails the parents. For years I have had a love/hate relationship with R&J, loving the beauty of Shakespeare’s words and images but hating these two reckless teenagers and Romeo’s shallow self-centeredness. Until I saw a production that featured 4 incredible actors as the Montagues and Capulets. I sensed their causeless bitterness and hatred with each other. I ached to make them see what they were doing to their families. And at the end, my heart broke for them as they discovered the consequences of their blind vitriol. It was then that I realized, this play isn’t really about Romeo and Juliet, it’s not even about the centuries old feud that divided Verona. It’s about two sets of parents blinded by a tradition of hatred who cannot see what they’re doing until they’ve paid in the blood of their children. Granted, diCaprio, Danes, and Luhrmann made me care about the impetuous teens. I saw their struggle fleshed out in a way I had never truly seen. Nevertheless, Luhrmann fails the parents. Not only does he shove them to the side for the majority of the story, he makes you actually dislike them as people. The problem with this strategy comes at the end. When the parents arrive at the church, halfway exiting their limos to the passionate curse of Captain Prince, I just didn’t care. Those heart rending lines where Prince lays out their blame and curses both their houses fell flat because no one had made me care about the parents. I was saddened that Romeo had died needlessly, that Juliet had watched him die and then taken her own life, but I was not touched by sadness for the parents. Had I cared about the parents, had I seen them and their struggle in this film, those last few minutes could have been deeply tragic. But they were not. The tragedy ended with the final gunshot, the scene with the parents cut short and left shallow. It’s the only real criticism I have for the film, but it is a significant one for me.
Will I watch this one again? I will. Luhrmann’s work is artistic and compelling. He’s a strong director with a unique vision that works quite well here. I found myself wishing he would take on the Scottish Play. Or The Tempest. Either would be well worth watching. It is too bad that he failed the parents. It would have made a much stronger film, I feel. Ah well.