By general consensus the original and world’s greatest epic concerning love, Romeo and Juliet is presented here by Baz Luhrmann in a thoroughly modern and accessible format, whilst retaining the original plot and utilising some of the world’s best-known text. I must admit that, before I viewed this film, I approached it with a not insignificant amount of trepidation. I myself am not a great fan of the original tale, as I find it to have become predictable and unrealistic; a victim of it’s own success. I was pleasantly surprised to find, then, that Luhrmann has managed not only to keep mainly true to the plot, but has also made the film version exciting and impossible to stop watching.
Luhrmann’s film changes the setting of Shakespeare’s medieval, quaint town, Verona, to a typically troubled modern-day city, Verona Beach, replete with drugs, gangs, violent crime and corruption. This may sound like an unlikely setting for a tale of love, but actually turns out to be well able to accommodate the events of the plot, and, when coupled with Luhrmann’s interpretations of the character, serves only to make the film convincingly believable. Capulet and Montague appear to be business-men, but all we know for certain is that they hold positions of power in the city, the head of each family operating from their own sizable sky-scraper emblazoned with the family name and glowering at the other over the tops of the other city buildings. The other family members in each of the feuding patriarchies run competing street gangs that frequently and publicly clash.
In keeping with Shakespeare’s play, a modern-day news anchorwoman reads the original introductory sonnet. The film then opens with a clash between the two familial gangs that is split up by the chief officer of the cities constabulary; this police chief is Luhrmann’s subtle recasting of the plays Prince. The rest of the film pretty much follows the original script of the play in Luhrmann’s new setting. The party of the Capulet’s is, for example, held in the impressive mansion of the family, where Romeo and Juliet first meet and fall in love in the pool area. The pool scene is particularly notable for it’s clever juxtaposition of the original text with a tense, well-choreographed scene that portrays both the danger and passion of the pairs love.
Later in the film, the scene of rage, where Capulet lashes out at his daughter, is superbly realised to display the psychotic nature of Capulet and vulnerability of Juliet in the face of her family’s wishes. One notable exception from the film is one common in many modern interpretations of Romeo and Juliet: Juliet’s soliloquy. Juliet’s soliloquy in Act Three of the play is one of the major factors that show the audience her true character and establish in the mind of the reader her intelligence and loyalty. In leaving this part of the play out Luhrmann has diminished the real personality of Juliet for viewers, leaving those who have not read the play with the view that, to some extent, Juliet is a weak character who just floats along in the current of the events occurring around her. The omission also reduces the impact of Juliet’s suicide, as her true strength of character may not have been communicated effectively to the casual viewer.
However, in spite of its few shortcomings, the film is very successful in conveying the many dimensions of each of the characters personalities. The characters appear on screen as vibrant and real people, bringing to life Shakespeare’s carefully constructed plot in a way that anyone can access and appreciate. I walked away from this film with a greater respect and interest for the story of Romeo and Juliet as Luhrmann has not simply transferred the play from words to pictures, but fully realised the potential of this tale and brought to life his interpretation of it in a way that will appeal to the school-children of today and provide a way for them to really get into Romeo and Juliet, helping them to actually appreciate the play, instead of having to pretend to do so in order to satisfy their examiner.