Skip to main content

William Shakespeare's Romeo&Juliet review

How unlike your typical Shakespeare adaptation Baz Luhrmann's Romeo&Juliet is. Like Ian McKellan's remarkable Richard III, it breaks free of stagy tradition almost completely - only the poetic language and that plot are left to give the game away. Out go the ruffs, tights and oh-so-perfect English accents. Instead, Luhrmann's production delights in John Woo-style slow-mo, in-yer-face art direction, gender-bending gang members and casual drug-taking. Where you'd expect to see horses, there are convertible Chevys. Where there should be swords and rapiers, there are handguns. Even the muted Capulet-Montague confrontation that kick-starts the original play becomes, in Baz's hands, a Desperado-style stand-off - all gun-totin' teenage posturing, backed by the lazy twang of an electric guitar.

Even if this contemporary take on such an old, familiar story seems like a dumb idea - an uncalled-for remake of Boyz N The Hood with added rhyming couplets - chances are it will win you over. And it looks consistently fabulous. Taking its cue from the drug-fuelled, funked-up lifestyle of any inner-city ghetto, it's one long eye-popper of a film.

It's greatly to the movie's credit that nothing has been taken as sacred, too - the play's been chopped and changed and messed about with as much as is needed to make it work as a film. Instead of the fair port of Verona, Luhrmann (previous credit: Aussie dance fest Strictly Ballroom) gives us a Mexican beach-side metropolis - a decaying South American nowhere with the Capulet and the Montague families represented by two huge business corporations. This is a seedy world in which the "dagger" isn't a small, pointy sword but a popular make of 9mm handgun. Similarly, the "Prince" of Verona turns out to be the local Chief of Police, while a local church choir belts out TAFKAP's When Doves Cry in fabulous gospelicious harmony - this is celluloid Shakespeare with an unforced sense of humour. At first the juxtaposition of what you're seeing with what you're hearing may grate (a rough, pill-popping street yob describes his girlfriend as "the sun", when "bitch" or "ho" seems more appropriate); later, it'll seem perfect.

What Luhrmann's interpretation does is to strip Shakespeare down to its literary boxers. It sacrifices huge chunks of text for "visual" storytelling. If you've never encountered Romeo&Juliet before, this dumping of the more flowery poetry and unimportant scenes makes everything much easier to understand. But there's a danger to this, of course: the beautiful language is what makes Shakespeare's plays work, and there's a reason why Big Bill's words are usually spoken slowly and clearly - so you can understand them. In Luhrmann's adaptation, thrilling as it is, the lines are often yelled in rough-edged American - you can tell what's going on because you can see what's going on, but you sure as hell can't hear it. Yes, Mercutio probably is shouting heartfelt warnings to Romeo on the windswept beach, but for all you know he could be ordering a pizza.

As for the performances, DiCaprio and Danes acquit themselves well enough, but their brief love affair - which abandons the famous balcony for a quick dip in an outdoor swimming pool - never really ignites. DiCaprio is no Olivier, Jacobi or Branagh, and, in the presence of accomplished thesps like Postlethwaite and Margoyles, his inexperience is exposed. Danes is better, if a strangely plain leading lady. Their support is fine, though: Harold Perrineau Jnr makes an impact as an extravagant, cross-dressing Mercutio, Margolyes hams it up nicely as a chubby Latino nurse, while Brian Dennehy and Christina Pickles provide recognisable faces for their "sit in a big stretch limo" cameos.

But the acting in Romeo&Juliet isn't the incredible thing - it's the look of the production. With Luhrmann's quick-fire music-video approach to the material, R&J assaults the senses with a non-stop rush of vibrant images and fast-cutting action. It's a rich, rude, violent ride that storms the walls of haughty Bardness - potted Shakespeare for the Tarantino generation. Love it or hate it, there is no middle ground. You'll either come out thinking it an anarchic work of near-genius, or an embarrassing mess.

Whatever you decide, Luhrmann has managed something so different with this production it just cries out to be seen. Right-on supporters of traditional RSC Shakespeare, with their perfect, true-to-the-text stagings, will be appalled. We suspect that Shakespeare himself - though he'd probably wince at all the text that's been cut - would love it. Branagh has just brought us a brilliant, faithful version of Shakey; Luhrmann has, equally brilliantly, reinvented Romeo&Juliet for the present day.

Shakespeare goes to Mexico, as Luhrmann and the art of film-making update Romeo%26Juliet with bold, anarchistic verve. You'll either get off on its freewheeling indie energy, or think it complete and utter shite. You've got to see it, though.

More info

Available platformsMovie