The Montagues and the Capulets are two feuding families, whose teenage children Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Juliet (Claire Danes) meet and fall in love. They have to hide their love from the world because they know that their parents will not allow them to be together. However, there are several obstacles, such as Juliet's cousin Tybalt (John Leguizamo) and many street brawls between the Montagues and the Capulets. Although set in modern times, it remains the same timeless story of star-crossed lovers.
In ninth-grade English class, I had to read William Shakespeare's classic romantic tragedy Romeo & Juliet, and I found it to be a very compelling story. The tale of star-crossed lovers was what introduced me to the works of William Shakespeare. One day, I decided to revisit director Baz Luhrmann’s hipper, modern-day film adaptation of the play. Originally, I never cared for this version, but upon second viewing, I now really like this take on the story.
First of all, I have to commend the performances. Leonardo DiCaprio (one of my favorite actors of all time) and Claire Danes (one of the most lovely and talented actresses working today) are both great as the titular Romeo and Juliet, and the two share great chemistry with one another. John Leguizamo also does a good job as Juliet's cousin Tybalt, as do Harold Perrineau as Romeo's best friend Mercutio and Pete Postlethwaite as Father Lawrence (Friar Lawrence). Even Vondie Curtis-Hall delivers a really good performance as Captain Prince (Prince Escalus). The other actors also do fine with the material given.
I know I'm in a minority on this one, but I'm a big fan of Baz Luhrmann's snappy directing style, particularly his sense of editing and cinematography. Jill Bilcock's stylish, fast-paced editing actually adds to the film rather than take away from it. Normally, I would complain about quick-cut editing, but Bilcock and Luhrmann use this style of editing to their advantage. They practically have it down to a science, much like Paul Greengrass with shaky-cam and Zack Snyder with slow-motion.
Donald M. McAlpine's cinematography is just gorgeous. This is a truly beautiful film to look at. The fights between the Montagues and the Capulets are very well-shot by McAlpine and Luhrmann, and the choreography is great. I also have to praise the production and costume designs by Catherine Martin (who also happens to be Luhrmann's wife) and Kym Barrett, respectively. The film's sets and costumes look fantastic (particularly the scene where the Capulets have a party and we see Romeo as a knight in shining armor and Juliet as an angel with wings).
Now onto the most controversial aspect of the film: the characters speaking Shakespeare's original dialogue. I feared that the Shakespearean dialogue would come across as forced, but much to my surprise, it all seemed rather coherent within the film's contemporary atmosphere. It was like the characters were speaking a different language. It's actually quite fresh and innovative on Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce's parts. If you disagree, that's fine. More power to you. Also, the soundtrack. I know many people don't care for it, but I personally found the soundtrack to be quite good.
Now, I do have some issues with the movie. First of all, the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. This part of the film actually wasn't bad, but I wish they stuck with what Shakespeare originally wrote. Don't get me wrong, I get what Luhrmann and Pearce were going for: having Juliet wake up from her coma barely able to move while Romeo realizes that she's really alive and that he's too late, having already drunk the poison. But I prefer Shakespeare's version where Juliet wakes up after Romeo dies. I found that to be a lot more powerful.
Another problem I have is with the characters nicknaming their guns "swords" and "daggers." This is just stupid. Granted, Luhrmann and Pearce do provide an explanation for this. Their guns are Sword Series guns, as you see when the camera zooms in on them. But why not just have the characters say "Hand me my gun" or "Hand me my weapon" or "Hand me my pistol" and not "Hand me my sword"? You changed Friar to Father and Prince Escalus to Captain Prince, so why not do this? This was the only thing about the film's mix of modern-day setting and Shakespearean dialogue that really bugged me.
Overall, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet isn't a flawless masterpiece, but it's not horrendous trash either. It's not without its issues, but I found this to be an entertaining, well-acted, well-shot contemporary take on the Shakespeare play. Have I seen better Shakespeare adaptations? Yes, I have. Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet and Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing come to mind. But I still enjoy this film. I recommend it.