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