Though flamboyant Aussie director Baz Luhrmann is now best known for “reviving” the movie-musical with Moulin Rouge (does no one remember the equally successful Evita?), it’s 1996’s Romeo + Juliet that can be called his true masterpiece. It is, in fact, the quintessential marker of a generation. It paired ’90s pop-culture icons as the titular couple (Leonardo DiCaprio, who would go on to be immortalized in Titanic a year later, and Claire Danes, hot off the cult TV phenomenon My So-Called Life), and mixed rapid-fire MTV-style editing with edgy pop music to lure a new generation into the world of Shakespeare. The result is, as even Luhrmann admits, “rambunctious,” yet five years later the film’s relevance is stronger than ever. Luhrmann’s update of the timeless tale of forbidden love resonates with the angst of a post-Cobain generation armed to the teeth. DiCaprio’s Romeo is the quintessential brooding antihero (one part Cobain, one part James Dean) while Danes’s Juliet is the sheltered damsel with a delicate fury all her own. The script’s preserved Elizabethan language is at first hard to swallow amid towering skyscrapers and pill-popping gangs (see the film’s opening sequence, a spaghetti western-style gas station brawl), but is decoded via clever branding (guns are named “Longsword”) and the actors’ guileless interpretations. Similarly, the story’s subtext is rendered on buildings and billboards as well as in television advertisements, newscasts and fashions. Purists may scoff, but the film is faithful to the Bard and its makers are thoroughly cognizant of the story’s many intricate layers. Perhaps the caliber of Luhrmann’s rendition of Shakespeare’s classic can be measured by the extent to which one clings to hope that the couple isn’t really doomed.
- Baz Luhrmann
- Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce
- Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, John Leguizamo, Paul Sorvino, Brian Dennehy, Christina Pickles, Paul Rudd, Diane Venora, Miriam Margoyles, Harold Perrineau, Des'ree, Pete Postlethwaite
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