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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #226: Romeo + Juliet

The work of William Shakespeare has been adapted to the stage countless times so when cinema became mainstream it was only a matter of time before countless movie adaptations would also follow. Of course most young movie audience don’t exactly have the ear to understand dialogue from the age of Queen Elizabeth hence the abundance of gunfire in Baz Luhrmann’ Romeo + Juliet (1996), which moves the location from Verona to modern-day “Verona Beach.” The result might upset stuffy purists, but nobody can deny it makes for one memorable night of theatre.

Even though the actors speak using more-or-less the Shakespearean dialogue, upon its release the movie was a box-office success and helped launch the careers of young Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the star-crossed lovers. Further proof of its success the film was eventually shown in Shakespeare studies classes, much to the delight of many students. I heard a little about it from my older brother’s class while we were living in South America at the time of the movie’s release, but I had to wait many more years to see the whole spectacle for myself. While at the University of Sherbrooke I took a course on Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, and lucky me my teacher counted Baz Luhrmann as one of those contemporaries.

Of course this being one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays everyone has a rough idea of the story goes even if they have never read the play or seen an adaptation. Romeo of the House Montague falls in love with the beautiful Juliet, but unfortunately for the two them she is of House Capulet, whose members are at war with Romeo’s family. In the play this involves many sword fights, apothecaries, and a prince trying to keep the peace between the two families.

Luhrmann sets up his modernized take in the story right at the beginning of the movie with a fight between young members of the warring families, in this case crime families, with an explosive gunfight at gas station. Even though they draw weapons that fire bullets, the dialogue still works since their guns’ brand names are “Dagger” and “Sword.” Not immensely clever, but it works.

Other modern updates include the prince being police Captain Prince (Vondie Curtis-Hall), the young lads taking ecstasy before going to a party, and a crucial message failing to be delivered because of a problem with a UPS. At times the modern setting does clash with the events of the play, most notably when Prince banishes Romeo from the city for killing Tybalt (John Leguizamo). Surely nowadays being banished from your hometown is not a legal punishment for manslaughter?

Still, Lurhmann gets away with it by having his talented cast of (back then) young up-and-comers fully commit to the dialogue. This is definitely an auteur’s film and Luhrmann’s theatrical style is all over this, as with the other films in his Red Curtain Trilogy made up of Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge! It is difficult to update the most famous play of the world’s greatest playwright, but Luhrmann’s version has yet to be beaten in terms of popularity.

Seeing the movie in class, my fellow classmates and I both laughed at and enjoyed the action scenes. Afterwards we were also able to have an academic discussion with our teacher about the modernization and the few differences between the play and the movie. One thing I believe we all agreed on: the ending in the movie is way more depressing than in the play.


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