William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

Verona Beach is a hot-bed of violence and ruthlessness. This film, located in that contemporary hell hole, starts out looking like it might make Shakespeare accessible to a young audience of Tough Guns who live and die on the streets of L.A. (Where else could it take place except Los Angeles, Miami, or New York? Howzabout May-hee-ko?), but within minutes we realize that the text is so close to Shakespeare we might get them to watch the pictures, but they ain't gonna listen to the iambs in particulameter, if ya' knows what I means. Then, as we get a little further and the guns is poppin' around and Mercutio takes a dive, we realize, this ain't too bad, but ya' gotta brush up on your Shakespeare before you can take it in. In udda words, ya can't folla' the show without a programme. A little workin' knowledge of the Bard will help you get through the whole yard.

Yeah, now that two dudes from Down Under, namely Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, have gotten their heads together to adapt an Elizabethan piece anno 1996, you better hold on to your scabbards and go with the flow. These are the same two who gave us Strictly Ballroom and this time the dance is more frenetic and wild. Luhrmann, who also directs, says of the author who penned the original, "He was a rambunctious, sexy, violent, entertaining storyteller. We're trying to make this movie rambunctious, sexy, violent and entertaining the way Shakespeare might have if he was a filmmaker." It seems as if Luhrmann has taken much of his cue from concepts and analyses found in Anthony Burgess' books A Mouthful of Air and Shakespeare, quite possibly with a touch of A Clockwork Orange mixed in. Co-scriptwriter Pearce says, "If you're respectful, you're looking for the core and, hopefully, the true meaning. If you're reverential, you're just obsequious."

Leonardo DiCaprio (of What's eating Gilbert Grape? fame) signs in for the O and Claire Danes (of Little Women same) jumps in as Rosaline's replacement. They're both so young they seem to fit the parts. You might have a hard time deciding which one is prettier. Luhrmann spent a lot of time concentrating on the language of the piece in order to make it as comprehensible as possible for a contemporary audience. This resulted in some profound discoveries by DiCaprio, who reveals that "when I began to dissect sentences, I'd find meanings referring to something way back in the script, or words with double and triple meanings. So I really had to know what I was talking about to do the words justice." Thank you for that, Leonardo. Danes, on the other hand, seems to have had a revelation after the film was finished and tells us that "There are no missing pieces in the writing. In fact, when I read scripts for other movies now, I'm ridiculously disappointed. It's impossible to measure up to Shakespeare." Such praise! Unfortunately, I doubt if the Bard will be writing any new pieces as a result of it.

Also wearin' the town's trendiest rags (designed by Kym Barrett) are Brian Dennehy, Pete Postlethwaite, Paul Sorvino and Diane Venora. John Leguizamo slinks around and hisses nicely in basic black as an unforgettable bad-ass Tybalt. And let us not forget the stunning apparition of Harold Perrineau (a Brooklynite) as the new-found Mercutio. All the characters find themselves to have become cinematic icons mingled together in Luhrmann's vision of Verona Beach.

Superb points for production designer Catherine Martin and costume designer Kym Barrett for physically creating a world we recognize, but have never actually seen quite this way. Martin says, regarding her work, "For me, the created world came down to the fact that Shakespeare's plays were always a bit of a pastiche. They were never one pure period. He never went to Verona and studied in detail the workings of Verona society when he wrote Romeo and Juliet. It was his vision, as an Englishman, of this mythical, Italianate country, where everyone was passionate and hot-blooded." She calls it the "buy factor" (as in "Do you buy it?"); I say, "Whatever works, Kym". Loved the neon crosses in the church. The setting is filled with lots of wonderful seedy shops for the detail-catchers such as "Rozencranzky's" and "The Merchant of Verona Beach," not to mention the old "Globe Theatre" movie house. The more refined eye might also notice the Shylock Band, Prospero Whiskey, Out Damn Spot Cleaners, and Butt Shaft bullets.

Barrett, speaking of her costumes, says, "What I tried to do, after talking to Baz, was convey the universal qualities of each character. Everyone knows these characters. They may recognize them in a different form or age group, but they are figures who appear in every type of society, every social strata, every family. So, what I attempted to do was impart the subconscious impression of this person, the feeling this person gives out." The end result, especially during the masked ball sequence, is like being at a colorful Truman Capote party. From Prada to Dolce & Gabbana, fashion consciousness separates the men from the boys and the Montagues from the Capulets. Music in the air ranges from Radiohead to Butthole Surfers to Mozart. There's also an impressive original score by Nellee Hooper, Craig Armstrong, and Marius de Vries.

Luhrmann deserves praise for his bravado in taking on the challenge of realizing this project and making it work. Superb points as well for the exquisite work of Director of Photography Donald M. McAlpine, who is to a large extent responsible for making the magic world turn real. His decision to shoot in a broad, anamorphic format enhances the entire film.

After 400 years Romeo & Juliet have the right to say "you've come a long way, baby." Now, if only the world would change.

© 1994-2006 The Green Hartnett