About the Film: Bahz Luhrmann’s Romeo + JulietBy Armando William Urdiales Jr.
On Verona Beach in the 1990s, two young people find themselves in star-crossed love in this stylish adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Under Bahz Luhrmann’s direction, the title characters are trapped in the middle of gang warfare and parental disapproval as they navigate their forbidden love amidst heartbreaking rivalries. Luhrmann creates a quick-moving adaptation that allows contemporary audiences to find new experiences in a tale that told many times before. Although Romeo + Juliet (1996) initially met with a mixed critical response, it was a major box office success. The film’s reputation has grown over the years as audiences have increasingly appreciated the contemporary relevance that Luhrmann highlighted in Shakespeare’s timeless themes. The subsequent successful careers of Luhrmann, Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, and John Leguizamo—along with a massively popular soundtrack album—have also helped the film to be fondly remembered.
Luhrmann has become well known for the riveting spectacles he creates for both screen and stage. He has frequently noted that Romeo and Juliet is his favorite of Shakespeare’s tales, and this affection can be seen in two other films that he directed in the same era. The Australian Luhrmann’s first box office and critical success was his film Strictly Ballroom (1992). The influence of Romeo and Juliet in this film can be seen as two dancers from different social and economic classes find themselves not only in love but participating in the creation of a new dance dynasty in the ballroom scene of Australia. Later, Luhrmann would describe this film as part of his “Red Curtain Trilogy” that also includes Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge (2001). The reason for the collective appellation is that all three films in the series share a theatrical sensibility (the red curtain evoking the stage curtain found in many traditional proscenium arch theatres). In Strictly Ballroom, Luhrmann’s characters often create intense, over-the-top scenes out of life’s more mundane experiences. Romeo + Juliet also embodies a sense of the theatrical but takes it one step further. Whether it be the intentionally tele-novella style of acting that the Capulet’s embody or Romeo’s intense sadness, Luhrmann’s Shakespeare adaptation is both more histrionic and more poetic than most other film or stage versions of the play. The third film in the Red Curtain Trilogy is the Oscar-winning musical Moulin Rouge. Luhrmann again uses melodrama and visual kineticism to embody the characters’ emotions. While some critics at the time begrudged the “cheesiness” of the film, Moulin Rouge’s reputation has also grown over the past two decades, and it was recently adapted as a successful Broadway musical. An important motif that appears in all three films is “L’Amour,” rendered in a style similar to a Coca-Cola ad. The image has become so iconic that many people who love any or all of the Red Curtain films will get it as a tattoo.
What sets Luhrmann’s film apart from other Shakespeare adaptations is the extremely contemporary feel of the piece. Adapting Shakespeare in any context can be daunting. The plays have been done so often and in some cases done well that it can be hard to imagine what one can do that would be truly new while also serving the work. Before Luhrmann’s, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film version was generally seen as the standard when it came to Romeo and Juliet on film, and it was one of the most widely viewed Shakespeare adaptations of all time. Some critics in 1996, when Luhrmann’s version premiered, remarked that while Zeffirelli’s version was somewhat sexualized, his adherence to the script and use of period settings and costumes made his film seem almost definitive. Luhrmann, however, takes Zeffirelli’s familiar approach and turns it on its head. Instead of swords and Elizabethan-era costuming, the Capulets and Montagues carry guns and wear JINCO jeans. Luhrmann even leans into the sexual ambiguousness of Mercutio, all while still staying largely true to the original script. While it has been some years since the release of both films, critics have begun to take a second look at Luhrmann’s film in particular. Instead of tut-tutting what is “wrong” (i.e. not “traditional”) about the later film, many have begun to understand its lasting importance. No longer were Shakespeare’s lover's relics of a different era; instead they became much more accessible to modern young people.
There have of course been many adaptations of Romeo and Juliet. One well known example is the Sondheim musical West Side Story, which tells the story of two racially divided gangs in 1960s New York. While Shakespeare does not make overt mention of the races of the Capulets and Montagues (they are both Italian), West Side Story adds a tense racial backstory—albeit one moderated by Hollywood standards of the time. This modern tradition of adding a dimension of racial tension to the play finds its way into Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. The Montagues are shown as uniformly white characters. With his blonde hair and blue eyes, Leonardo DiCaprio personifies the All-American white male. The Capulets, however, embody, at least for the most part, a LatinX family. With the casting of John Leguizamo and other LatinX actors, the Capulets personify stereotypes of the Hispanic culture. Their tele-novella acting cannot be missed, nor the fact that their costuming, accents, and paraphernalia all lean into LatinX culture. This racial tension is one that many critics did not enjoy in 1996, but as we live in a highly racially aware time, it is hard not to notice them. John Leguizamo as the Prince of Cats, Tybalt, wears an Our Lady of Guadalupe embroidery on the back of his shirt. This symbol, which is so important to LatinX Roman Catholics, is featured prominently throughout the film. Furthermore, that the Capulet patriarch is portrayed as hot-headed, dangerous, and even violent evokes a stereotype of men in the LatinX culture. This approach to the Capulet family is what makes the casting of the white actress Claire Danes problematic from a 21st-century point of view. Originally, Natalie Portman auditioned and almost captured the role of Juliet. However, during screen tests with DiCaprio, 13-year-old Portman’s appearance was too young against the 18-year-old. Thus Claire Danes, then famous for the TV show My So-Called Life, was cast. While in 2021 this kind of casting would hopefully not happen, Luhrmann’s overall desire to reinvigorate a racial aspect to the Romeo and Juliet narrative is remarkable.
Tracking with the well-known ending of Shakespeare’s play, the film ends with the two lovers' death, and it comes about as dramatically as one might expect. DiCaprio’s Romeo is constantly weeping at his true love’s death, and he realizes all too late that Juliet is alive. Danes’ Juliet sees this and beings weeping intensely. One can almost see her eyes realizing the loss of her lover’s life but also the sheer lunacy of the moment—it is a truly impressive feat of acting by the young Danes. Ultimately, the legacy of this film is as a great modern interpretation that does not simply posture as gritty or irreverent for its own sake. It is also a film that evokes strong nostalgia in Generation X and older Millennials, many of whom saw it in a movie theatre and purchased the CD soundtrack. It is easy to find people who remember the film fondly but now see it as belonging to an extremely specific moment in time. That said, it is fast-paced and exciting adaptation that shows Shakespeare at his most purely entertaining and ultimately at his most moving.