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Pop Culture Rewind: Romeo + Juliet

Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Shakespeare adaptation Romeo + Juliet remains the ultimate modern portrayal of the infamous star-crossed lovers.

This film is a pastiche of pistol-shooting anachronisms, garish neon crucifixes, and Shakespearean dialogue. Set wittily on Venice Beach, California, the tragedy is the perfect crystallisation – and modernisation – of a teenaged lack of clarity and misguided love. Confusion, passion, and familial feuds are bedazzled by loud shooting scenes, a suave nineties soundtrack, and unbuttoned Hawaiian tees.

The story of Romeo and Juliet has never been more glamorous, more familiar. It’s hot and grungy, full of beachside brooding. Romeo is played unforgettably by Leonardo DiCaprio, whose voice-over soliloquy in the sunset reveals an introverted character guided only by emotions, desire. His intentions are solely ones of passion. Juliet, however, played by sweet-faced Claire Danes, is stuck in a place where honesty fails her. She must feign love for Paris, feign obedience to her mother – clarity has no place in her life, only secrets will bring her happiness. Luhrmann reminds us that Romeo, emotional in his journaling, and Juliet, content to orchestrate lies and fibs in her room of dolls, are both mere children.

Luhrmann loves manipulating water in this film. The moment Romeo and Juliet catch each other’s eye through the fish tank in the Capulet mansion is fateful. In the balcony scene, Romeo must hide in the pool beneath Juliet’s balcony as Nurse investigates. For this adaptation, water portrays a lack of clarity and simplicity in Romeo and Juliet’s relationship. The eternal distance between them is destined, water warps and mottles the frame, their fate together isn’t clear. It’s marred by this fishy water, this barrier. The film’s conclusion is crystal clear to everyone in the audience – it’s the Shakespearean tragedy, after all – but by using water to remind the audience of the lovers’ terrible fate, Luhrmann twists the knife in the wound.

It is, above all, the modernisation of Shakespeare’s play that makes the movie so irresistible and transparent to us. Shakespeare is often considered inaccessible due to his archaic language. As if by magic, Luhrmann retains this seemingly inaccessible mode of communication and reframes it into an utterly accessible, consumable and understandable story. The business rivalry between the Montagues and Capulets, the shaggy costumes and Americanisation, the gang-like feud between Tybalt (played so fabulously by John Leguizamo), Mercutio, and Benvolio – it all wonderfully, heart-wrenchingly, accumulates to the tragedy that tears your heart like a bullet and leaves it bloodied and wounded like any good gunshot. Let’s also not forget Mercutio’s (Harold Perrineau) ecstasy-induced drag performance of “Young Hearts Run Free,” as well as Paul Rudd’s mild and excellently vanilla performance as Paris. Miriam Margolyes’s performance as Nurse rings on forever as she screams the line, “Juliet!”

Romeo + Juliet goes down in history as the ultimate pimped-up Shakespearean tragedy. The heart-throb songs, the silver pistols, and sandy battles all accumulate into a fantastic mosaic of love and hate. It’s like Luhrmann’s collected shards of glass, and rearranged them into an unthinkable, thrilling image.


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