Baz Luhrmann brings a unique visual style to William Shakespeare’s renaissance tragedy “Romeo and Juliet”. Set in a modern Verona Beach, Luhrmann sets the assertive and trendy tone of his adaptation within a decaying Miami City. Within minutes, the opening TV prologue hurls us into the white-hot intensity of the two warring families, bombarding the audience with chaotic action scenes and passion. Constructing an edgy and dynamic environment, his brash interpretation uses rapid cuts and erratic zooming techniques to create a comic strip style sequence against the multicultural backdrop of the graffiti scattered streets of Verona. Though effective, the restlessness of the camera becomes confusing, slicing the action into short, sharp images that can mystify rather than illuminate. Such fervent action so soon into the film is dizzying and unexpected. Luhrmann attracts the audience with his lively cinema style, speeding up the action to hype up the confrontation and the rivalry of the two families alongside an intense soundtrack of contemporary and popular music. As a contemporary film director, Luhrmann clearly values the younger audience who would usually only come into contact with Shakespeare in a school environment. This could explain the roaring energy of car engines and elaborate guns instead of horses and swords originally used in earlier productions.
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Encompassing the elegance of Shakespeare’s text, Luhrmann introduces the “star crossed lovers” in a tender exchange of affectionate eye contact across the shimmering light of an aquarium. The pair follow each other across the length of the glass in an enduring and delicately youthful and romantic moment, capturing the innocence of the fated pair. Luhrmann creates a sensual and glamorously romantic atmosphere whenever the lovers meet alone. The balcony and swimming pool scene in particular surrounds the pair in a glimmering sheen of water and light. Luhrmann’s use of atmospheric lighting leaves the audience to swoon, drinking in the glow of the dreamy eyed couple as they exchange their most iconic and enduring dialogue. Though their love is prohibited by tradition, ego and prejudice in the society of Verona, Luhrmann exposes Shkespeare’s drama to a contemporary world without limits, modernising the play with radical scenes of drug use, drag queens and public brawls. A couple so concerned with the traditional morals of their families in a world of law breaking and promiscuity comes as a stark contrast which at times, is unconvincing. As the audience enjoy the rowdy and loose morality at the Capulet Ball, it is initially somewhat difficult to believe that two young people in love would not act upon their passionate attraction. However, the undeniable beauty of the couple’s love is infectious. As they lie in the church lit by thousands of candles, the beauty of Shakespeare’s romantic tale is undeniable in the soft, atmospheric style with which Luhrmann combines light and opulent religious design to glamorize the tragic scene in which the love affair comes to an end.
The language used in this film is lifted from the pages of Shakespeare’s text; which is surprising and pleasing as the dialogue fits seamlessly into the style of the film. Luhrmann has stripped the dialogue right down the necessities in order to sell to a commercial younger audience who may not understand the complexities of the original dialogue. The bare bones of the text are delivered confidently, notably by Friar Lawrence. Actor Pete Postlethwaite’s portrayal of the Friar as a new age herbalist gives the audience a glimpse of Shakespearean imagery and rhythm as he optimistically agrees to marry the pair in a bid to turn the “household’s rancour to pure love”. Similarly, Harold Perrineau’s portrayal of Mercutio adds an exotic and audacious tempo to the film. Perrineau portrays him as entrancing and compelling, emphasising Shakespeare’s skilfully witty character, which becomes most poignant during his speech before they are due at the house of Capulet. The volatile style in which he presents this famous speech builds from a jovial and bawdy exchange with Romeo at the steps of a run-down theatre, to an explosive and passionate conclusion. Delivered naturally, Luhrmann heightens suspense by climaxing the speech with a furiously bright light and sound of a single firework. The audience are brought to a peak of tension and anticipation, unsure where this volatile character will take them next.
As well as presenting an aggressively modern adaptation with the setting and language of the play, Luhrmann’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s tragedy is styled inventively by costume designer Kym Barrett. The clothing is eclectic and riotously colourful, complimenting the up-beat and psychedelic style of the film. Reflecting the disposition of the characters, Kym Barrett dresses the characters as a portrayal of their position in the society within the plot. The contrasting morality within the generations and conflicting traditions between the families is illustrated by the way they dress. The Capulet boys for instance, are dressed in smart and formal suits throughout the film, proudly reflecting their traditional Latino heritage which Luhrmann portrays. Creating a contrast, the Montague boys are dressed in very casual beach shirts and board shorts, illustrating the less mature and jovial features of their characters. In a comparison to the younger members of the cast, the parental and authoritative figures are dressed in expensive and regal clothing, suggesting the traditional values of their society. Both women at the head of each household are seen to be dressed in the luxurious clothing typical of wives of influential men. As their wealth is illustrated in the elegance and glamour of their dress, the authority that their husbands hold within the city is also established. It is interesting to note that Luhrmann includes a modern style drag queen in this adaptation, dressed in a provocative and bold sequined outfit. Though not unknown in the other Shakespearean plays, cross dressing, most involve women dressing as men. Mercutio’s flamboyant style of dress at the Capulet’s ball is an expression of sexuality ineffectual to the plot, not a central theme to the resolution of the plot as in many of Shakespeare’s plays. Luhrmann heightens the aesthetic sexuality in his film adaptation to attract a younger and more contemporary audience. The romantic characters of the film remain innocent. Dressed to reflect her youth, Clare Danes instils the naivety and youthfulness of Juliet in a modest white dress and plain style of hair and make-up. Similarly, Romeo reflects her adolescence and compliments her dress, choosing a simple black suit and tie. Before they fall in love, the audience can pick up on their compatibility by the harmonizing styles of the lovers.
The costumes and setting of the film generate an up-beat and boldly elaborate overall vision. The audience are bombarded by an audacious and lively interpretation complimented by an energetic soundtrack and attractive cast. Though incredibly pleasing on the eye, Luhrmann’s concentration on the aesthetics of the film does sacrifice the story and dialogue for style. However, this interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic does bring renaissance drama into the 21st century. Luhrmann tells the story in an edgy and fast paced film which smashes the Shakespeare’s stereotype of stodgy, uninteresting plays that are difficult to understand.
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As a director, Baz Luhrmann revisits the play with great attention, choosing to only leave out scenes that are really futile to the plot. This may be due to the audience his film is designed for, catering for the commercial audience who require more of the action and romance than the subtleties of Shakespeare’s dialogue. His style of directing is sometimes intrusive, zooming in and speeding up the action in a way which draws the audience in, almost too close to the drama. His wild style of filming places the audience into the action immediately, which at times, particularly the opening scene, is obtrusive and gaudy.
This adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” is significant in that only one other film edition is recognised with the same commercial acknowledgement. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 adaptation is a traditional take on the play, set in the 15th century Renaissance period and filmed entirely in Italy. With only one other well-known film version of the play, Luhrmann’s film has become an important alternative to the conventional style of renaissance drama. Largely shot in Mexico City, there is a strong unapologetic ambience, giving the film more of an attitude than the traditional setting of Verona. Luhrmann’s definitive rendition of the play is outrageously narcissistic and easy on the eye, opening the world of Shakespeare to a wider audience in a contemporary and brash interpretation that leaves the commercial audience wanting more of Shakespeare’s compelling drama.
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