In preparation for The Great Gatsby, Michele and I saw Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet the other night. I fell in love with it all over again. In my humble opinion, it is – by far – the best Romeo and Juliet movie. As a play, Romeo and Juliet works great but as a movie, it often doesn’t. Movies are usually too real for Shakespeare.
West Side Story, one of the great Romeo and Juliet‘s, is one of my favorite plays. It is stunning on stage. How could it not be, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, music by Leonard Bernstein, and choreography by the great Jerome Robbins. When Tony kills Bernardo, it is a shock. Every time. The music and choreography highlight the shock. But, in the movie, everything looks and feels fake. The sets, the gritty background, make everything else look and feel like Who are you kidding? For me, the movie was a bust.
Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet gets around that by going overboard. The star crossed lovers become real because of it. The movie opens with the usual, Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. on a TV screen. And then the movie repeats it, and again. One of my problems with Shakespeare is that by the time I get used to the language, I am not sure what I missed. By repeating the opening in several different way, I get the language in time to understand the set-up.
As an aside, after watching this R & J, with all its religious iconography, Michele noticed that it was probably an allegory for Catholic verses Protestant conflict going on in England at the time. This especially makes sense given that Shakespeare’s family was Catholic when it was against the law. End aside.
What the movie shows even better than most play adaptations I have seen, is that this battle, between the Capulets and Montagues, has been passed down to the younger generation. The cause is no loner important, the fighting, the war, has taken on a life of its own. It is senseless but the movie implies that nobody cares any more.
Clare Danes is a perfect Juliet. She was sixteen when the movie was made and could easily be fourteen. In the movie, she has a certain craziness that makes her very believable. Leonardo DiCaprio is lost until he finds his Juliet and then he believably fall in love. Pete Postlethwaite is super as the priest with just enough menace to leave me worried for all the young boys he has hanging around. Both Paul Sorvino and Brian Dennehy, as the family patriarchs, are saddened as their feud spins out of control and they can’t do anything about it.
What makes this movie seem so powerful to me is that we all know what is coming and there seems to be no way to stop it. .