How ‘Romeo + Juliet’ made Shakespeare inviting for teens

Mark Ciemcioch
Oct 31 · 6 min read
Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio play the star-crossed lovers of Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet.” (Photo copyright 20th Century Fox)

Every week, Ultimate Movie Year looks back into the past to highlight the best film that came out that weekend.

“Romeo + Juliet”
Released Nov. 1, 1996
Directed by Baz Luhrmann

Love and romance often go for drama and laughs in the cinema, but rarely does it aim for tragedy as a path for ticket sales without a great hook, but then again, never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet + her Romeo.

Director Baz Luhrmann had multiple hooks in the mid90s, adapting a classic tale authored by William Shakespeare and catapulting it into the present with fire and passion, anchored by performance that turned actor Leonardo DiCaprio into a movie star. “Romeo + Juliet” made English classes cool for a moment when it was released this weekend in 1996.

There are surely Shakespearean purists who take exception to the modernization of the classic play, just as there were film critics who unleashed a dagger strike into the heart of the movie upon its release. “The desperation with which it tries to ‘update’ the play and make it ‘relevant’ is greatly depressing,” wrote Roger Ebert. “In one grand but doomed gesture, writer-director Baz Luhrmann has made a film that (a) will dismay any lover of Shakespeare, and (b) bore anyone lured into the theater by promise of gang wars, MTV-style. This production was a very bad idea.”

“Where is the audience willing to watch a classic play thrown in the path of a subway train?” asked Janet Maslin of the New York Times. “Puts Shakespeare’s greatest romance in a choke-hold and takes it slam-dancing,” said Desson Thomson of the Washington Post.

And yet, the film endures in high school English classes, and for many teenagers, marks their introduction into Shakespeare. What did Luhrmann understand that the critics did not? Perhaps the one unspoken truth that sounds dreadful to English majors around the world: It is incredibly difficult to grasp the fullness of Shakespearean dialogue when hearing it for the first time in the modern age for anyone, much less adolescents. Dare I say that, despite its technical feats and acting performance, “Romeo + Juliet” was not meant for critics, but for people looking for a window to understand one of drama’s greatest tragedies.

In his adaptation, Luhrmann maintains the Shakespearean language of the play, but updates everything else. This is a film that viewers may want to put the closed captioning on if they’re going to understand all the dialogue, some of which is uttered so loud, so quickly that it becomes unintelligible. Fortunately, Luhrmann is as focused on telling the story through the visuals and editing as he is through the script.

Take the opening scene of both the play and the movie. The plot revolves around the ongoing feud between the Montague and the Capulet families, and representatives of both sides encounter each other early on to set the stage. In the film, the Montague and Capulet gangs confront each other at a gas station, using their “swords” 9mm guns to draw upon one another. Here, Luhrmann uses quick edits and extreme close-ups of the participants to rapidly build the tension between the two sides. It all builds up to the introduction of Tybalt Capulet (John Leguizamo), who enters the scene wearing steel-tipped cowboy boots lighting a cigarette as the music score likens the character to a villain out of a spaghetti western. Words may be said too quickly for the audience to remember a quotable line for later, but even without that, the story here is being told very clearly.

Jump ahead to later in the movie, when Romeo and Juliet meet at a Capulet costume party and begin to court each other. Now Luhrmann slows the pace of the visuals down, during their initial encounters. Their roles in the story are shown visually, as Romeo has donned body armor for the party, and Juliet is dressed as an angel. They spot each other from either side of a fish tank, and Luhrmann holds the camera on their faces as they express surprise, interest, shyness, and affection. In the hall below, singer Des’ ree is performing “Kissing You” at the party, and this becomes the theme song for the star-crossed lovers. Eventually, we see both of them in the same shot looking at one another through the fish tank. Still, the reflection on the glass puts an image of the subject’s face next to their partner, so Romeo and Juliet are already together, standing side by side.

These two scenes highlight the approach Luhrmann brings to this adaptation, using every cinematic technique, including cinematography, editing, music, costume design, and modern media, to update the classic Shakespearean tragedy. It gives audiences a relatable hook into the story while also exposing them to the original text of the play.

Luhrmann also brings in an impressive ensemble cast as the players in the film, including Leguizamo, Paul Sorvino, Brian Dennehy, Jamie Kennedy, Paul Rudd, Pete Postlethwaite, M. Emmet Walsh, and Claire Danes as Juliet, who is excellent in the film. However, it’s hard to argue that this is the film that makes DiCaprio an undeniable star in Hollywood. Before being cast, the young actor had slowly been building his career with acclaimed performances in films like “This Boy’s Life,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” and “The Basketball Diaries.” “Romeo + Juliet” was not only the most prominent role of his career at the time, but the one that exposed him to his widest audience.

The combination of the handsome DiCaprio’s ability, charisma, and intensity made an impression on filmgoers, as “Romeo + Juliet” became a modest hit in the states, and a slightly bigger one worldwide. One year later, the actor took on a risky role in a troubled production directed by James Cameron. That bet hit the jackpot, as DiCaprio starred alongside Kate Winslet in “Titanic,” which would go on to become the biggest movie of all time in box office totals. I’d argue that DiCaprio’s role in “Romeo + Juliet” helped prime the audience for the massive success of “Titanic.”

The legacy of “Romeo + Juliet” continues decades after its release. The film is still being shown in high school English classes, often becoming an introduction to Shakespeare for many students. Baz Luhrmann continued to be a distinctive stylistic director in cinema, highlighted by 2001’s “Moulin Rouge!” DiCaprio, of course, would go on to become one of Hollywood’s few remaining movie stars with a prolific career who managed to avoid relying on franchise pictures. Luhrmann and DiCaprio reunited for another adaptation, “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, in 2013.

While “Gatsby” is a fine film, I’m not sure it’s as impressive as “Romeo + Juliet” is because of the challenge involved. By embracing the Shakespearean language with modern times and cinematic techniques, Luhrmann made a time-crossed tragedy, with the birth of a star by the end.

The Weekend: The beginning of November brings an eclectic mix of film debuts over the years, and it doesn’t get more eclectic than 1999’s “Being John Malkovich,” Spike Jonez’s mind-bending comedy featuring a group of people who discover a portal that allows them to live as the Chicago-born thespian. I’m not sure there’s any weirder film that’s better than this one.

Pixar began to assert itself as an animation giant outside of the Toy Story films with 2001’s “Monsters Inc.,” the colorful fantasy starring John Goodman and Billy Crystal. Director James Wan kicked off a new horror franchise with the debut of 2004’s “Saw,” which bowed in theaters two days before Halloween.

Director Taika Waititi took Chris Hemsworth into the space cosmos of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2017’s “Thor: Ragnarok,” which completely reinvented and reinvigorated the God of Thunder for the massive film franchise. Finally, Rami Malek won an Academy Award for his role as the Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which, well, indeed features a lot of popular Queen songs, and that’s all we’ve got to say about that.

Next Week: “Borat”


Originally published at http://www.markciemcioch.com on October 31, 2019.

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