Inspired by my recent trip to Secret Cinema, I felt the need to proclaim my love for the inimitable William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.
In 1996 Australian director Baz Luhrmann – a relative unknown amongst Hollywood heavyweights – grabbed Shakespeare by its Elizabethan balls and made it into an MTV spectacle. Luhrmann decided that the Bard could – and would – talk to a contemporary audience of moody adolescents and intelligent young professionals in a way that it never had before. How? He turned Verona into Verona Beach – a dirty, sexy urban hotspot strewn with gangs and seedy pool halls; swapped swords for guns; and made Friar Lawrence a tattoo-wielding chemist.
Still with me?
On paper it sounded bonkers. Today, it still sounds bonkers. But, it works. It’s busy, and unabashedly loud, but also tender, thoughtful and – this is the best part – now timeless. Most people remember Shakespeare as an irksome GCSE task, an irrelevant text that can’t possibly be relevant to today because, well, it was written then. Luhrmann’s auteur eye meant that Romeo + Juliet was no longer a melodramatic tragedy that didn’t relate to now, it was a stylish story of prohibited love that felt new. The melancholy spills off the screen and into our laps, and we can’t help but stay glued to it.
Upon release the flick was a major hit because it was a colourful celebration of the time. Today, it’s revered for its zeitgeist approach to filmmaking, and its all-out attack on the world’s best-known love story. The 90’s setting has given the film a new lease of life too, as a joyous throwback to a fondly-remembered decade. There’s a lot to love about this adaptation, not least Harold Perrineau’s complex Mercutio. A part-time drag queen with a penchant for drugs (a clever re-thinking of Queen Mab), this Mercutio lives to cause a stir, and Luhrmann’s decision to portray his love for Romeo as more romantic than brotherly reinvents a character whose role in the play is often overlooked.
A young Leonardo DiCaprio, on the cusp of stardom, puts in an Oscar-worthy performance as lonely Romeo looking for his soul mate, and Claire Danes – one of the most diverse actresses to grace the modern screen – comes alive as a Juliet longing to experience life, and love. The real feat with this adaptation – which really only stays faithful to the Shakespearean dialogue – is in making us, bizarrely, want for the romance between the two titular characters. It’s achieved through a cool-as-hell visual and minute by minute pacing that takes us on a whirlwind story of family feuds, capitalist America, and, of course, untimely death.
Whether you’re falling for Quindon Tarver’s soulful cover of Prince’s When Doves Cry, or rooting for a love that was doomed from day one; William Shakespeare – no, sorry, – Baz Luhrrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, will have you hooked.