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 - #316: Trainspotting

In the 1990s Hollywood directors were the kings of cinema, whether it was for big summer blockbusters or smaller independent films. Guys like James Cameron or Michael Bay would blow up the screens while Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino put the emphasis on snappy dialogue that created relatable characters for the moviegoers. Then in 1996, as if to scream “we can do this too,” Danny Boyle released Trainspotting in the United Kingdom.
Based on a novel by Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh, the movie took the world by storm despite having no explosions, a cast of actors who were relatively unknown and a budget that today could barely pay for the catering of a Transformers movie. Furthermore this is not the story of young people going to college to enter a life full of promise, but about young heroine addicts meandering through the streets of Edinburgh. Despite introducing these characters during an energetic montage set to Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge in …

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #364: Natural Born Killers

Natural Born Killers (1994) is not so much a movie as an American nightmare come to life. Loosely based on a story by Quentin Tarantino, starring some of the wildest actors in Hollywood at the time, and boasting a level of violence that unfortunately inspired copycat crimes, it is the textbook definition of controversial. In all fairness there are important messages amidst all the violent mayhem, but director Oliver Stone throws so much content at the screen that these messages can sometimes get lost in the carnage.
Even though the movie came out more than two decades ago it still has a legendary status, which I learned about while reading a chapter in a book about Tarantino’s career. The book, Quintessential Tarantino, contained a lot of interesting facts about the making of the movie and also spoiled the ending, but reading a few words that describe a killing spree is very different than seeing it portrayed on screen. A few years ago the director’s cut became available on Netflix, wh…