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Saturday, 10 May 2014

Romeo + Juliet

This might be a short one today. Why? Eurovision! If you're American, and don't know what Eurovision is, this is what you need to know: It is one of the most important diplomatic events of the year for Europe and several non-European countries, making it possibly one of the most important diplomatic events in the world, and it looks like this: 

The majesty of European diplomacy.

Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet.

So. Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet.

Hands up if you saw this adaptation in school.

I did, about three times, I think. Everyone I know did. If a teacher needed to teach Romeo and Juliet, they would fling themselves into class with a copy of Romeo + Juliet, put it on, and you could spend several lessons watching, and they'd use the time to catch up on marking and paperwork. Baz Luhrmann is a saint as far as English teachers are concerned. A beautiful, glorious saint.

Long-time readers of this blog will remember I did a review of another, more recent Romeo and Juliet adaptation, by Julian Fellowes. I wasn't impressed, both in the sense of 'I found it poor' and 'I had no impression made upon me', with the obvious exception being that damned opening line 'Mercutio of the House of Montague', which just made me scream in rage, and still does whenever I think about it.

ESCALUS. The House of ESCALUS. This is a plot point! Twice!

Romeo + Juliet, in contrast, shows great fidelity to the text. Or, mostly, anyway: It's transplanted into Nineties America instead of Renaissance Italy, but one of Shakespeares' advantages has always been that you can take a lot of his plays and set them almost anywhere, and they'll still make perfect sense. In almost every other sense, however, the film is almost slavishly devoted to the text, even when a change might make more sense in a modern setting. There are some clever work-arounds – references to swords become model names for the guns, for example, and Mercutio's rant about Queen Madb becomes a reference to a street drug – that suggest that a fair amount of care has been taken with balancing the Early Modern English text with its then-contemporary setting.

I've encountered more than one person who has been annoyed by the setting actually, and annoyed by combining Shakespeare's ever-gorgeous language with a very luridly bright, neon, decadent and modern setting. I've seen it described as the worst Romeo and Juliet adaptation ever, obviously by people who have never seen either the film I reviewed some months back, or the Youth Theatre version I once watched in which the Alchemist was literally the Grim Reaper and leapt out of a bush to give Romeo the poison.

Yes, this film is very much pop art. It's not high art, and I think mistaking it as high art would be absurd. But then, Shakespeare was pop art. One of the first things you learn in any good study of Shakespeare was that Shakespeare was a pop artist. He wrote for the masses. Much of what we consider characteristic of Shakespeare – the bawdy humour, the puns and clever wordplay, the ridiculous misunderstandings and bloodshed – these are to satisfy the groundlings, the poorer masses who would attend his plays because the only other entertainment was bloodsports, and who comprised the vast majority of his audience in a time when theatre was often shunned by the upper classes, amongst whom several social critics protested that the violence portrayed in plays would lead impressionable people to recreate that violence themselves.

Nowadays, we have obviously evolved past the need to
blame popular media for our societal problems.

Shakespeare was, in essence, the Joss Whedon of the Jacobean era. Right down to an idiosyncratic use of language.

So, yes, this film is fluff. So is the play it's based on. But as fluff goes, it's well-made: Baz Luhrmann clearly understands the text he's working with inside and out, and he brings his remarkable cinematography skills to bear. If you've seen Moulin Rouge, and again, most people have, then Luhrmann uses many of the techniques he uses there here. It's overblown. It's overdramatic. People scream. Everything is busy and frantic and frenetic. Sometimes things explode – who can say why or how. Pathetic fallacy comes screaming into a scene at the mere suggestion of emotion.

The acting isn't bad, either. It's not great, this was never going to be the role that Leonardo DiCaprio wins an Oscar for, nor is it the example you want to pick to demonstrate his acting talents to someone, but it's functional. I've certainly seen much worse. DiCaprio and Danes perform their lines with considerably more verve and spirit than Booth and Steinfeld did. Harold Perrineau is a show-stealer as Mercutio. The acting might not always be inspired, but it hasn't taken an interesting play and made it soporifically, turgidly dull, and if that's a low bar to set, then blame Julian Fellowes.

Blame him. Blame him hard.

Look! Emotional affect!

As a film, Romeo + Juliet is very grounded in the time period it was made, which is like being incredibly dated, only nicer. There are people looking ridiculous in Nineties' surfer attire with pink hair, and one look at them prancing about on the beach and you will immediately think 'Oh god, the Nineties are here, they're – they're coming to get me.' Certainly, nobody is going to be confusing this film for one made now – it's much less ambiguous in that regard than its counterpart, Moulin Rouge, and in a way that's a danger of setting something in the modern day. A danger or a blessing, depending on your viewpoint: As a culture, we're fairly celebratory of 'historical cinema', almost as much as we are with literature.

It's a good film. Part of that is the text – Shakespeare's writing remains some of the most inspired in the English-speaking world – and part of that is Baz Luhrmann's gorgeous cinematography, and a very small part of that is the actors' relative competence. The largest chunk of that, though, is the care and fidelity taken to the text, not just in terms of preserving the words, but in terms of matching the emotions and themes portrayed in the original play. This is an adaptation by somebody who understands and loves what he's adapting, and it shows in every scene, in contrast to the Fellowes' adaptation which didn't entirely convince me that the man had ever read the play at all.

If you've not seen it, watch it, and watch some of Luhrmann's other films, too. Moulin Rouge is even prettier, and even better, it's a musical.  

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