Baz Luhrman gave the Bard top billing in his 1996 adaptation WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S ROMEO + JULIET to signal his desire to be faithful to the original text. The finished work, some have called MTV meets Shakespeare, looks, feels and sounds like an ‘of the moment’ polished contemporary work. Much of that has to do with elements of production design, music and editing. The arresting visual style is second only to the characterization and performance by the cast.
The conventions of studio filmmaking concern them selves with issues of economics in an era of market capitalism, those conventions impact all aspects of the filmmaking process from the writing and production of film to of course issues of casting. By 1996 Leonardo performances in BASKETBALL DIARIES and THIS BOYS LIFE earned him solid credits as a serious actor but this superstar launch from TITANIC was still in the future. Claire Danes was primarily a TV actress with an emerging film career. These two were young, attractive and on the way up, Lurhman’s vision of a contemporary but faithful adaptation for a video age audience called for leads that would look good on the cover of Tiger Beat and who’s images would fit seamlessly in the commercials between segments of TRL.
Modern, young and very attractive American film stars speaking Shakespearian dialog in their American accents in a geographically ambiguous setting gave this adaptation a unique feel that at times was not entirely successful and sometimes even slightly altered the traditionally understood narrative.
Lurhman goes for a kind of camp sensibility in this film by using varied film speeds at times, especially in scenes with Juliet’s mother and fast camera zooms in the gas station gun fight sequence. Leguizamo’s ‘Dia de los Muertos’ take on Tybalt and Harlod Perrineau cross-dressing, cabaret singing Mercutio call the most attention to the otherworldly nature of this adaptation.
Harlod Perrineau take on Mercutio is a joy to watch but I was troubled by the treatment of the Queen Mab speech that ended with Romeo dropping a hit of ecstasy before the party sequence. The original text suggests this speech this as a kind of theatrical goof, Mercutio showing off his imagination and storytelling skills for the amusement of his friends. Lurhman’s adaptation has the Queen Mab speech as the pretext for getting Romeo high on a ‘love drug’ at the party where he meets Juliet. Lurhman has used this particular device since, notably in MOULIN ROUGE, by sending Ewan McGregor into the nightclub high on absinthe as a way of highlighting a dreamlike and chaotic atmosphere he wanted. This to me calls into question, in a very small way, the over arching theme in this adaptation ROMEO & JULIET, the purity and potential danger of young love. Although totally appropriate in the context of Perrineau’s characterization of Mercutio, the idea of that love being chemically enhanced or altered by the drug diminishes if only slightly this telling of this story.