Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #70: Stand by Me

Another clear influence on Stranger Things, Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986) portrays American kids from a lost era in which they could go on an adventure away from home. Nowadays if children go missing for more than an hour parents try to locate them using cell phone apps, but in the story written by Stephen King four boys in 1959 Oregon go walking in the woods during a long weekend to look for, of all things, a dead body. Their lives are sometimes at risk, they have no way of communicating with their parents, but they will definitely have a story to remember for the rest of their lives.
For many North Americans adults this movie fondly reminded them of a time in their childhood despite the inherent danger. Not so for me since, first of all, there was no time in my childhood when I could possibly go out of the house for more than three hours without my mom getting in her car to go look for me. The there is the fact that I spent a good chunk of my childhood living in Chile and Peru, an…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #77: Spartacus

Spartacus (1960) is an interesting movie in Stanley Kubrick's filmography because it doesn’t really feel like a Stanley Kubrick movie. I don’t exactly know why, but his signature style doesn’t seem to be present unlike in classics such as The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, or Dr. Strangelove. It does however feel like one of those big sword-and-sandals epics in which you have British thespians acting as Roman politicians with the occasional big battle sequence. In that respect it is spectacular and features Kirk Douglas at his best as the titular hero.
The story of the rebel slave Spartacus has inspired a bloody and sexy TV series (so far unseen by me, but I hear it’s great) and the story behind how it was made is one of those cases of life imitating art. The Bryan Cranston film Trumbo tells how screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted in Hollywood during the 1950s for his communist beliefs and had to rebel against the system by writing screenplays for cheap movies under a fake nam…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #79: The Thin Red Line

I once saw an interview in which Christopher Plummer said that what Terrence Malick needs is a writer. He was referring to his experience shooting The New World, which saw his role considerably reduced. The same happened to a much greater extent with Malick’s war movie The Thin Red Line (1998), which saw the screen time of many movie stars reduced to mere minutes amid a 170-minute running time. However you have to hand it to the guy: he knows how to make anything look beautiful, including the carnage of war.
Malick’s movie came out the same year as Saving Private Ryan, so I think that year I had my fill of ultra violent war films and was no too interested in seeing it. Sixteen years later I finally caught up to it on Netflix, but in hindsight the big screen might have been a better option since this is a very visual story. The plot is pretty loose, following one American soldier and sometimes some of his brothers in arms as they make their way through World War II in the Pacific theat…