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Review: William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet-Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Director: Baz Luhrmann | 120 minutes | drama, romance, crime | Actors: Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, John Leguizamo, Miriam Margolyes, Harold Perrineau, Pete Postlethwaite, Paul Sorvino, Brian Dennehy,

“For never was a storie of more wo, then this of Iuliet, and her Romeo.” For example, the narrator in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Iuliet ended the play in about 1623. In 1996, these words are spoken by a newsreader, who reveals to viewers the tragic outcome of the greatest love story of all time. Then the television image changes to snow.

It is just one of the many tricks that director uses to place Shakespeare’s original text in a late twentieth-century setting. He gets help from the master himself, because artists like Shakespeare were way ahead of their time and the decadent theater – with grand gestures and niece humor – fits perfectly into the fin-de-siècle of our time. Luhrmann moves the stage from medieval Verona in Italy to the fictional Verona Beach (filmed in Mexico), has rival families like Crips and Bloods dueling each other under neon lights with revolvers instead of daggers and the love that is of course timeless. Romeo and Juliet meet at a costumed ball, where he is dressed as a knight and she as an angel with wings (again such a nice trick). From that moment on it revolves around the classic theme of love against the circumstances. The story continues to convince, although you no longer have to be in the world for a forced marriage.

It takes some courage to unleash young, classically uneducated and mostly American actors on lines like “Parting is such sweet sorrow”, but the combination with the exuberant imagery makes it nowhere theatrical. Claire Danes (only 17 during filming) has some difficulty with the monologues but more than makes up for it with her impressive desperation scenes at the end and her big-eyed innocence. DiCaprio is in his better days and – as is known – a great and veteran stage actors Postlethwaite and Margolyes (nursie from Blackadder!) Can support the two both in and outside the story. There is also a nice role of Jr. like Romeos mate Mercutio.

The throws a little bit through the rapid settlement of events, but that is part of classic tragedies, where a lot of time is traditionally spent convincing the audience of the good intentions of the main characters. Very nice soundtrack too, with The Cardigans (Lovefool) and a boys’ choir singing Prince. Once again redundant in the credits: the screenwriter of this film is called Bill Shakespeare. Not just for star-crossed lovers.

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