Watching Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet

romeoA few weeks ago we watched Baz Luhrmann’s version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and it was as I remembered it: Just a hoot. So over the top, with slow motion, fast motion, quick cuts, and wonderfully explosive performances, particularly from Harold Perrineau as Mercutio, John Leguizamo as Tybalt, and Miriam Margolyes as the nurse. In fact their performances reminded me (again) of the lack of energy and chemistry between Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio – or, perhaps, that those minor roles are just so much more fun and allow the actors to stretch and preen and, well, just carry on. More fun to be Mercutio, I think, than a star-crossed lover.

We watched this movie since our son’s studying the play in 6th grade, and the class has talked some about this version but not seen it. They’ve been given the task of re-creating a scene from the play – he and his mates took on the opening melee between the Capulets and Montagues – and I wanted to share with him what Luhrmann did for Act I, scene i, with helicopters, gunfire, Tybalt’s slicked back hair, and the exploding gas station. It is wild, wild, wild – a set piece that gives the viewer an immediate sense of what’s to come. Cartoonish, sure, but also riveting and so fun.

Initially, I hesitated showing that version of the play to our son, since I wanted to give him a chance to build his own version – to take the play’s rich language and let it paint pictures in his mind, without hints or outright suggestions. In fact, there’s always that tension with Shakespeare or other great authors put to film: To watch the movie or not? Does that take away from reading the text or add to it?

Maybe we hit this one just right: Our son and his classmates had already done some good thinking about their fight scene and had come up with a premise of dueling pirate clans, with our boy delivering the opening speech drinking from a bottle of rum. What a great, great idea – and so we watched the Luhrmann film as just another approach, how that director had imagined the play. As Ed Cumming wrote in the Telegraph two years ago, “The joy in a great Shakespeare performance…is in seeing the decisions the actor and director take with the text, how they make concrete the page’s ambiguities.” To see that film – or any version of the play – is to see those decisions and get the chance to evaluate their effectiveness. Did those collective decisions get the story across? That’s always a great question to debate, particularly with a version as outlandish as Luhrmann’s.

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