Romeo + Juliet (1996)

(On DVD, March 2017) Going into Romeo + Juliet, I only knew two things: I usually like director Baz Luhrmann’s work (I usually love the first half-hour of his movies); and I have a lot of trouble with Shakespearian dialogue. Despite my best intentions, I bounced off hard from the recent contemporary reimagining of Coriolanus and Much Ado About Nothing: my brain can’t process that language even with subtitles to help. In that context, Romeo + Juliet’s central conceit, to reimagine Shakespeare’s best-known romantic play with the same dialogue but in a mid-1990s Californian-ish context with warring crime families using fancy guns rather than swords, seemed like courting trouble. Fortunately, Luhrmann’s typical verve was enough to get me over the initial hump. The opening sequence of the movie not only indelibly imprinted IN FAIR VERONA in my mind, but was stylish and action-packed enough to get me interested in the (more sedate) rest of the film. Leonardo di Caprio is fine as Romeo, while Claire Danes makes for a fair wide-eyed Juliet. Able supporting presences by actors such as John Leguizamo, Pete Postlethwaite and Harold Perrineau (plus a very young Paul Rudd) complete the already wild portrait. Add to that Luhrmann’s usual energy and visual flair and the Shakespearian dialogue becomes far less important—knowing the basic beats of the classic story means that we’re free to appreciate the adaptation rather than the words, and so Romeo + Juliet comes alive. While much of this energy dissipates in the latter half of the film, there are enough elements of interest in the modernization of the story (complete with car chases, helicopters and news media commentary) to keep watching until the end. As pure piece of style, this is a film that is both precisely dated in mid-nineties aesthetics yet timeless because of them. It’s breathless, witty, just sappy enough to qualify as a true version of Romeo and Juliet, and an experience in itself. Maybe I’m getting ready to take another look at Coriolanus and Much Ado About Nothing

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