Romeo + Juliet

Romeo + Juliet ★★★★½

"Well, we were born to die."

Transforms one of the world's most well-known texts into a contemporary, candy-coloured phenomenon, exposing the collateral damage of petty feuds and mourning for its casualties. This shouldn't have worked. It shouldn't still hold up. And yet it does, gloriously so, I love it more with every minute that I think about it. I've spent days trying to understand how Baz Luhrmann made this work. I don't think I'm even close to figuring it out. I can start with Luhrmann's commitment to making this intense in all the best ways; every component of the film dials the volume up to its maximum. He immediately establishes his "fair Verona" as an explosive breeding ground for every emotion a human being can feel. The manic joy of the opening scenes flows into a fast, palpable romance, but fun flows into sadness as the inevitability of the story – death – becomes inescapable. Because the highs of the film are higher than high, the lows of the tragic back half feel all the more devastating.

This film lives and dies by its energy, though whether it actually lives or dies depends on who you ask. Luhrmann's tight camera zooms on faces and spins around bodies, working with fast cuts to create a dizzying sensory experience. His translation of the material remixes eras together, Shakespeare's overwhelming dialogue becoming entirely, strangely, natural. Not hard to see why the film's killer soundtrack, with its all-encompassing, energised sound and irony-drenched lyrics, was so popular (personal track selections: Lovefool, Talk Show Host and Exit Music (For a Film)). The music is just... so much, but it's because of this that it manages to sync with what Luhrmann's experimenting with. When he plays a music-backed moment straight instead of ironically, he takes the germ of the idea and launches it into oblivion: Montague punks being introduced with shouts of "the boys, the boys!"; "young hearts, run free" exploding into a massive dance scene while Romeo and Juliet's young hearts do, in fact, run free; each of the film's deaths incorporating a heavily dramatic score to match the massive heights of the performances.

Every actor in Romeo + Juliet is amazing in their dedication to the film's energy, but Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio achieve especially stunning work here. Wouldn't be a stretch to say I fell in love with them instantly. Initially, the only notes I wrote on the pair were "TALK! ABOUT! CLAIRE! AND! LEO!", which speaks for itself, I think. The 90s heartthrob angle to this is perfect – our "star-cross'd lovers" played by, at the time, young faces on the cusp of stardom. DiCaprio nestles into the Shakespearean angst, Romeo's self-centred woe tinging the Leo The Superstar™'s every romantic move. Danes finds a wonderful balance of sweetness and assuredness, or at least, as assured as someone in Juliet's position can be. Even before that meeting between the fish tank – the glances of an angel and a knight striking through glass and familial feuds – the pair of them work beautifully. Romeo and Juliet's relationship is composed of instant, aching chemistry, long kisses and hormonal-based impulses. I ate up every moment of it.

This romance is infamously rushed, and I remember previously arguing that their time together wasn't long enough to be believable. Of course it wasn't long enough. It never could've been. The arrogance of their parents overrules everything, mothers and fathers too obsessed with their Montague/Capulet war to notice their children slip from humanity. They let their pawns bite thumbs and duel with guns named after blades. They are oppressive, and it takes excessive death for them to finally loosen their grip. "My only love," Juliet famously says, "sprung from my only hate." Her distress, hyperbolised as it might seem, hit me hard this time. A transformative viewing in every way. I cannot believe how good this is. As soon as it ended, I felt like I could just play it again on a loop.

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