Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedy plays. Romeo and Juliet is the most famous love story in the English literary tradition. As the most-filmed of all plays, Romeo and Juliet serves as an example of how cinematic interpreters of Shakespeare have become more liberal over time. The story was long established even when Shakespeare wrote it in 1594 or 1595–he was adapting the earlier Italian tale The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet. Love is naturally the play’s dominant and most important theme. Sex, drugs, and violence are usually a potent combination, and only William Shakespeare could develop them into a masterful, poetic, and elegant story. Romeo and Juliet also lends itself to modernized, marketable film adaptations because of many of the innovative themes presented throughout the play, which include love vs. hate, light vs. dark, age vs. youth, and fate vs. determinism.
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Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet starts with an example of the power of the media, with a television news report. Straight away we see a new and modernistic beginning. There is a very dramatic opening, with dramatic music and quick shots of Verona Beach, skyscrapers, images of war and fighting, flashes of newspapers and magazines, and shots of helicopters and cars, all present day images. We have a voice over giving the audience and introduction to the story. We are then introduced to the characters of the film. The colours used for the different characters are very interesting. For the Capulets the colours used are cold colours like blue and green where as when Mercutio there is a use of soft golden colours. This immediately brings a contrast between the characters and this cinematic technique is used many times through out the film.
We are then brought to a gas station where a fight breaks out between the two feuding families. This is scene is very dramatic and a lot of quick imagery is used. We see more modernisation in this scene, we are introduced to guns instead of the commonly used sword and we also have fast cars instead of horses. We see great use of camera angels used in this scene. We see the low angel shot looking at Benvolio from one of the Montague boys and then the reverse with a high angel shot, which is not Benvolio’s point of view but still gives you the idea of his position. We then have extremely close up shots as we are introduced to Tybalt. Again here we see that Tybalt’s car is blue. There is a close up of his boots as he gets out of the car and then a close up of his head and hand as he lights his cigarette and again the background behind him is blue. When the fight begins and the tension builds we get close up shots of Tybalts eyes and Benvolio’s eyes. This kind of shot indicates strong feelings and in Tybalts’ case we see hatred as he is focused and powerful. When the camera shows the close up of Benvolio’s eyes he twitches showing fear along with the way that he is not looking directly into the camera. Although we are never shown from a far angle we know that they are staring at each other.
When we are fist introduced to Romeo, we hear his mother, father and cousin Benvolio talking about it, which helps us get a feel for his character. The first images we are given of Romeo are him sitting on Verona Beach which soft golden lighting just like Mercutio at the beginning. When we are introduced to Juliet, we see her in a close up shot underwater. She looks like she is a drowned girl; this could link to Ophelia in Hamlet. The way in which we are introduced to her foreshadows her meeting with Romeo and her eventual death.
Before the party Romeo talks of his dream, this builds tension with the flash-forward of the final scene of Romeo in Juliet’s tomb. This makes the audience curious of what is going to happen next even if they have read the play before or not. Romeo is then given a ‘love drug’. The effects of the drug on him are depicted brilliantly. As soon as he takes the drug, we see images of fireworks and spinning lights, the music becomes crazy and then mellow. We arrive at the party and everybody is dancing, people become blurry, we have images of Tybalt roaring like a lion and Romeo muttering the words ‘drugs are quick’ the same words that are used in his final scene of the play. The room begins to spin but the camera is still focused on Romeo which is a great camera angle to show that for Romeo the room is spinning. We then cut to an image of Romeo underwater washing off the effects of the drug. The shot of him under water echoes the image that we saw earlier of Juliet under water.
After all the hectic scenes, the music changes to a very slow romantic song to set the scene as the two lovers meet each others gaze through the fish tank. Romeo’s first few of Juliet is ‘under’ water. Again we see lighting used here to distinguish the divide between the lovers with the fish tank in between them, almost like an obstacle. On Romeo’s side of the fish tank the lighting is the golden reds and yellows, colours of warmth to evoke the Montagues and Juliet who we can only see through the fish tank is behind cool blues and greens, the tones of the Capulets. When the party ends the lovers then meet in the swimming pool, another use of the water among the characters. Here they exchange their love.
The costumes used in this film are very different from what you would see in a common Romeo and Juliet. All the Montague boys were colourful shirts, a lot of the time they are open showing their free natured spirit. The Capulets on the other hand are more serious and are fashioned with higher class clothes to represent their wealth and power. The costumes that the characters wear at the party are quite interesting. Tybalt is dressed as a devil which reflects his character’s evilness but is also ironic as he is very religious. Juliet is dressed as an angel which is exactly how her character is depicted, so angelic, fragile and heavenly. Romeo is the knight in shining armour and becomes the hero in the party and of the film.
Religion is a very common theme that can be seen through out the film. We are constantly shown the statue of Jesus through the course of the film. A lot of the scenes take place in the church where there are many religious statues and images on the walls. Holy music is played often and sometimes is shown with a choir singing. Juliet’s house and room has a shrine where she prays at night. At the very beginning Tybalt is wearing a shirt with Jesus on it and also his gun has a picture of Mary on the handle. Many of the characters have tattoos of religious figures or symbols and one of the main props in the film is Juliet’s wedding ring which is not only a symbol of marriage and love but also has the religious cross engraved on it.
There is constant tension and suspension of what is going to happen. When Romeo and Juliet are married and he goes to kiss his bride, we cut to a scene of Benvolio and Mercutio on the beach and a shot is fired. There is talk of a brawl. Tybalt arrives. There is great use of camera angles here as Mercutio runs at the camera and it pans around to show Tybalt backing away but with short images of him taunting and egging Mercutio on. Tybalt stabs Mercutio with a piece of glass, this is a new adaptation as they do not use swords anymore. This was well thought of as in the play Mercutio follows being stabbed with the lines ‘a scratch, a scratch’. There is almost like a stage set up on the beach and this resembles the theatre performances of Romeo and Juliet as we see Romeo and Mercutio on the stage saying lines and the other characters are down below looking up. We are then given more tension with pathetic fallacy that is common in plays, films and novels, when the weather reflects the mood of the play. A storm is brewing and it becomes very windy, we see people lock up their shops and people driving away. The music is also very dramatic. This makes the scene very tense for the audience and makes them curious about what is about to happen. We are then brought to Juliet’s room with her talking about her excitement and happiness with her new marriage and new love and all of a sudden the camera cuts to a rage filled Romeo screaming and driving extremely fast after Tybalt, there is a car crash and Romeo is standing there pointing a gun at Tybalt. Just as he pulls the trigger and shoots him, the camera cuts back to a shocked looking Juliet as if it was her that was hit with the bullet. This was a great use of imagery as we see just how much of an impact Romeo’s actions will have on Juliet and many others. This also links in with the line that Romeo say further on ‘as if that name shot from the deadly level of a gun did murder her’ speaking of Juliet. Romeo is then haunted by his actions. As he sleeps he is awoken suddenly by the sound of a gun shot and we see a flash back of Tybalt dying.
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We see water used again in the next scene as Romeo falls from the balcony into the swimming pool and Juliet looks at him and says ‘Oh God, I have an ill divine soul, me thinks I see thee now, thou art so low as one dead at the bottom of a tomb’. Romeo sinks beneath the surface of the water almost as if he is drowning. Romeo is sent to exile and when he hears of Juliet’s death the panic and fear is represented well with the panic and fear of Romeo returning to Verona Beach. We have the Priest panicking that his letter never reached Romeo. There are helicopters and police cars with the sound of police sirens. The music gets faster and we see fast cars and then there is a bit of a car chase. We feel the hectic panic of everyone through these quick, short, loud and frantic scenes.
Romeo reaches the tomb where Juliet is laying. We see the image of him walking down towards her body just as we did in the earlier scene when he described his dream. The slow music and his slow walking are a complete contrast to the last scene. Romeo mourns over his dead wife. The tension here builds for the audience as we known that Juliet is about to wake shortly and we can see her body twitching but Romeo can not. He sits up to take the poison just as we have a close up of Juliet’s eyes opening. She is awake but does not speak. Romeo has not yet taken the poison which makes the audience want to scream at the screen ‘Don’t do it’. It frustrates the viewer as well because Juliet does not speak to him, if she did she could have prevented the tragedy. Just as Romeo takes the poison Juliet touches his cheek and we have a very quick reflex from Romeo as he realises she is awake and that he can’t go back. Juliet finally realising what is happening begins to panic. The line ‘thus with a kiss I die’ was rearrange in the scene until after he has taken the poison to make it more dramatic and to have more of an impact on the audience. The silence after the his death makes this scene so tense, then you hear the sound of her crying and the sound of her loading the gun, and the sound of the gun shot echoes. The camera pans back to show the two lovers happy in death and we see a flashback of the night that they met and happy moments that they have shared. This reminds the audience of their troubled but happy relationship and helps the viewer to connect to the tragedy that has just happened. The news report is shown again as the television fades into the background and the film ends, leaving the ending dramatic and heart wrenching. Luhrmann changes in this scene have the effect of changing the focus and theme of the scene from the broader issues of rash youth and social conflict to a narrower focus on the tragic love of Romeo and Juliet. Only having Romeo and Juliet in this scene focuses the conflict on the tragic failure of their happiness and love. The audience want to focus on the lovers as it is the point of the story but there are much broader themes to it also.
The cast which Baz Luhrmann chose played well into his idea of wanting to broaden the horizons on the audiences that enjoyed Shakespeare. Succeeding in attracting a huge youth fan club, it helped that he had cast the young handsome Leonardo Di Caprio. Having famous people in the film immediately attracts a big audience. Claire Danes plays a beautiful Juliet. Other famous people such as Paul Rudd, who has come increasingly popular, along with Diane Venora, Pete Postlethwaite and many others.
Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet does not seem out-dated even though it is 11 years old. It is still referred to as the ‘new’ Romeo and Juliet. What is so great about this version is how Shakespeare’s language is untouched but worked in and fitted so magnificently into the modern day life. Luhrmann makes his film into an almost theatrical experience. . The most brilliant aspect of the movie is the urban landscape setting, the lighting, and the cinematography. There is comedy, romance and tragedy infused together in this film. This is a remarkable film, filled with love, passion, hate, power, etc.
Luhrmann wanted to entertain his audience with the timeless love of Romeo and Juliet and in my opinion he succeeded in doing so with an unforgettable adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Luhrmann, Baz. 1996, “William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet”
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