This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Travis McClain’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
I read Romeo and Juliet in my freshman year English class in high school. I was the only one who laughed at the end. That's the truth. Everyone else either thought it was sad or, if we're being honest, didn't care at all. Me? I thought it was ridiculous, that these two twits and their harebrained scheming had led them to their doom. Years later, I learned that Shakespeare had indeed written the play as a satire of the impetuousness of youth, affirming that I was the only one in my class who got it.
A couple of years later, along came this film adaptation. I had not the slightest interest, no matter how into it some of the girls I went to school with were. Oh, I heard the soundtrack CD playing in the background when we spoke on the phone and I endured the "You gotta see it!" entreaties. But the fact that none of them told me it was funny told me that Baz Luhrmann didn't get Shakespeare, either.
In truth, I may never have finally seen this film had it not transpired that I bought it in a double-feature Blu-ray Disc release last year, packaged with Moulin Rouge! (which I love). Today being Valentine's Day, and Romeo and Juliet erroneously held aloft as "the greatest romance of all time", it seemed the time had finally come. Plus, I watched Moulin Rouge! yesterday.
I'm fine with the modern dress approach employed here, though like many I find the guns-substituting-for-swords bit laughable. Then-modern film making aesthetics are also fine with me. There's no reason that a filmed version of a play written centuries ago should be static or try to approximate viewing a play. Let it be a movie, says I.
The problem is that, with just two exceptions, no one seems truly comfortable with Shakespeare here. Pete Postlethwaite exudes the most gravitas in the film as the priest, Father Laurence, and Harold Perrineau was inspired and delightful as Mercutio.
And that's it.
That's all I've got.
Every time anyone else opened their mouth, I was conscious that they were reciting lines. Even Paul Sorvino, who flashes the most personality of anyone other than Perrineau, seems to have been showing off his memory rather than really getting to the emotional core of his character.
Luhrmann's breakneck pace should have befitted the insistent, urgent nature of the titular couple. Instead, it merely runs roughshod over the core of the story. We never get a feel for how in over their heads the lovers are, or the nature of any of the relationship dynamics between any of the other characters. I think particularly of Lady Capulet, reduced from an ambitious woman who sees marrying Juliet as a means to greater security to little more than her husband's lackey here.
Even Postlethwaite's Father Laurence suffers from Luhrmann's haste. I mean, he's already married Romeo and Juliet, and when he's told that she must now marry Paris, he doesn't even bat an eye before presenting his faked death scheme? Just like that, you've got this whole thing planned out and ready to go? Were you holding onto this plan, just waiting for someone to walk into the church in such desperation that you could spring it on them? WHAT KIND OF A PRIEST ARE YOU?!
The finale, of course, is the big scene that secured the play's place in history. Luhrmann oddly chooses this time to show some restraint, filming it not quite as melodrama, but more as straight drama. In consequence, it doesn't play like the crescendo to a mad love affair gone off the rails that it should. It doesn't feel like much of anything, to be honest. My reaction was, "Huh. That's a lot of candles. I wonder if her dress is going to catch fire."
The film was nominated for one Academy Award: Best Art Direction (Art Direction: Catherine Martin; Set Decoration: Brigitte Broch). It lost to The English Patient (which I haven't seen yet). I've only seen one of the other nominees: The Birdcage, which I would probably have picked over this. I get that the contemporary urban setting was really the star of this production, but aside from the novelty I'd be lying if I said I was particularly dazzled by anything that I saw (though the Capulet masquerade ball looked like a lot of fun).
How Romeo + Juliet Entered My Flickchart
Romeo + Juliet < Psycho (1960) --> #1604
Romeo + Juliet > The Killing Fields --> #1209
Romeo + Juliet < Henry Poole Is Here --> #1209
Romeo + Juliet > Click --> #1108
Romeo + Juliet < Attack of the Killer Tomatoes --> #1108
Romeo + Juliet < Elektra --> #1108
Romeo + Juliet < Oktapodi --> #1108
Romeo + Juliet < Somewhere in Dreamland --> #1108
Romeo + Juliet < Someone's Knocking at the Door --> #1108
Romeo + Juliet > The Cowboy and the Lady --> #1106
Romeo + Juliet < Everyone's Hero --> #1106
Romeo + Juliet entered my Flickchart at #/1612
1996 Academy Awards (69th)
(N) ART DIRECTION -- Art Direction: Catherine Martin; Set Decoration: Brigitte Broch