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Film Review of Romeo and Juliet (1996)

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 ‘Romeo + Juliet’ is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare that was adapted into a modern movie directed by Baz Luhrmann and released in 1996. It revolves around two star crossed lovers; Romeo and Juliet, who take their life due to a catastrophic series of events. The themes of love, loyalty, fate, rivalry and opposites are actively discussed in the movie. To appeal to a younger audience such as teenagers to people in their mid-20s, Luhrmann has set the movie in a modern city that reflects present time. The movie is action packed and contains a plethora of dramatic scenes. Furthermore, to attract the audience Luhrmann has utilised a range of cinematic techniques such as lighting, sound, costume and set design.

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The protagonists are Romeo and Juliet, they are from 2 opposing households, Montague and Capulet. These characters are played by renowned actor duo, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. The whole cast, in particular Romeo and Juliet do a virtuous job of portraying the traditional characters with a modern twist. Leonardo DiCaprio fully fulfils the emotional intensity of the role of Romeo because he displays his impulsiveness, charm, bravery but also his immaturity and recklessness. Whereas Danes successfully portrays Juliet’s dramatic character development that has been influenced by her relationship with Romeo. Luhrmann has utilised the ethnicity of actors to form the identities of the Capulet and Montague houses. The Capulet actors are Latin as evident by their appearance and accent. The Montagues are white suggesting they could be Irish or American. The characters which are ‘neutral’ are African American such as the chief of police and Mercutio who is portrayed by Harold Perrineau an African American actor. His performance effectively emphasizes the themes of systematic oppression such as homophobia, his internalized feelings for Romeo and racism.

The most impressive component of the movie is Baz Luhrmann’s interpretation of the setting. Shakespeare has set his play in a medieval town of Verona whereas Luhrmann has successfully changed the setting to accommodate the event of the plot in a large modern day-city comprising of gangs, violence and corruption. The setting is displayed in the opening scene with an establishing shot that highlights the two sky scrapers with the family names inscribed on it, this also displays the Capulet and Montague as business men who hold positions of power in the city. Each family have a competing street gangs that regularly have public clashes. A variety of camera shots fully display the typically troubled city of Verona. Additionally, this highlights the tension between the 2 houses that sparks an interest in the viewer.

Unlike the playwright, the movie does not fully explore Juliet’s character because Luhrmann has missed an important soliloquy. This diminished the character’s loyalty and intelligence, in the mind of the viewer. It portrays her as a weak and vulnerable character which can be seen when Lord Capulet lashes out at his daughter. Furthermore, by decreasing her significance in the movie it reduces the impact of the suicide scene.

The costumes are a visual metaphor used by Luhrmann to highlight the theme of religion. In the opening scene religious symbols are engraved on weapons and clothing. For example, Tybalt’s vest and gun which contained an image of Jesus Christ. Later at the party he is seen in a devil’s costume which also alludes to his personality and death. For the party Juliet wears an all-white angel outfit because the religious interpretation for this is innocence. Additionally, during this scene Romeo and Juliet connect through a shared dialogue sonnet. A key idea in the sonnet is the flirtatious language which has religious overtones also making it sacrilegious yet adding a seriousness to their relationship. Buz Luhramann conveys to the audience that religion is espoused yet stripped of true meaning as displayed by the sacrilegious sonnet and when coupled with weaponry

The theme of love, death and misfortune are explored in the movie through the blue lighting and water motifs. Romeo and Juliet’s first connection is through an aquarium glass containing extremely blue water. Water as a metaphor for love is in Luhraman’s adaption of the famous balcony scene that occurs with the lovers immersed in the Capulet’s swimming pool. However, in the climax the symbolism of water is inverted to denote death and misfortune. Such as during Tybalt’s death scene, the lighting is blue, and he falls into a murky pond. Moreover, as Romeo is reflecting his actions a storm occurs. Thus, water and blue lighting symbolise Romeo and Juliet’s love which is ultimately tarnished by the death of Tybalt in which the murky water marks tragedy, violence and death.

Baz Luhrmann uses non-diegetic sounds such as the opera music or bullet shots to add tension and dramatic effect. The music is essential in action scenes as it sets the scene, allows the viewer to interpret the length of the feud and highlight the hatred between the 2 houses. For example, in the opening conflict scene, the Montagues eye the Capulet’s and high paced western music plays during their fight. Therefore, in this instance it also indicates the theme of violence.  

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