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Romeo + Juliet (1996)

by on 2011/02/02

Romeo and Juliet was the first Shakespeare play I ever read.  I was probably in Grade Eight, definitely junior high, and I had as little interest in deciphering “old English” as I had in romance.  My world consisted of water gun war games, perfecting paper airplanes, and convincing Grade Niners to teach me Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

Unfortunately, the English department, clearly unmoved by my volunteer library service, pooh-poohed A-Team novelizations in favour of studying Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Othello.

Over the years, the inevitable dread of each new play became resigned acceptance and, wouldn’t you know it, by university I was studying the damn Bard voluntarily.  Poetry in one class, plays in another, and film festivals at the Backstage Cinematheque.

And through it all, I still loved The A-Team and water guns.

Which probably explains why I enjoyed director Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.  Its kaleidoscopic whirlwind of distilled Shakespeare is woven together with the trappings of a music video, all plunked down into the world of a Grand Theft Auto game.

I don’t dislike reinterpretation.  Not only is one characteristic of great art to demonstrate conceptual flexibility, but that very quality may be essential to its survival.  While adapting a work risks changing the intent or quality of its originator, it also increases the chances of finding a new audience.  Plus, that audience can seek out the original if they’re enamoured with the adaptation.

In this specific adaptation, Leonardo DiCaprio (Inception) and Claire Danes (Terminator 3:  Rise of the Machines) play the title roles, star-crossed lovers whose relationship is complicated by their fighting families, the Montagues and Capulets.

This movie took a lot of heat upon its initial release, but imagine a similar effort made nowadays.  It would have the “extreme” production of Crank, The Matrix’s bullet time, and text messaging between characters.

  • did my hart luv til now?
  • rr U@ r?
  • itz d east, n j S d sun
  • w00+!
  • gud nyt partin S such swEt sorrw
  • wats ina nme? yr swEt
  • lol
  • vIlent dlitez = vIlent enz
  • zomg 3pic f4il !!!!

I think Luhrmann’s interpretation appeared at a good point in time, balancing tradition and modernity, before the latter threatened to consume the former.  Then again, someone a generation my junior might disagree.

What did I say about great art…?

No, I don’t think it’s perfect.  For one thing, despite all the attention paid to its popular soundtrack, I found many selections inappropriate, even distracting.  Though the Nineties is hardly my favourite period in pop music history, that’s less my issue than the particular songs selected from within that era.

One thing which did occur to me toward the end of my viewing was that Romeo + Juliet is a kind of inverse Not the Messiah.  It’s the mainstreaming of an increasingly inaccessible text, whereas Idle’s Folly is the obfuscation of a self-evident source.

I’ve seen faithful productions, modernizations, and total reinventions, but this version, on its own merits, impressed me.  It was one of several “Shakespeare updates” I once saw in rapid succession, including Forbidden Planet, She’s the Man, and 10 Things I Hate About You.  While Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead may be more original, Romeo + Juliet strikes the best balance of all.

At least as far as the literate A-Team demographic is concerned.

* * * *

Rated PG-13 / 14A for adult situations and violence

120 minutes

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