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William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet  

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, John Leguizamo, Paul Sorvino, Brian Dennehy, Pete Postlethwaite, Miriam Margoyles Directed by: Baz Luhrmann Written by: Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce

A critic for a local newspaper in my area made the following comment regarding the latest "interpretation" of William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" - "The filmmakers should have left Shakespeare alone." That's a careless comment. Why leave it alone? Aren't the plays of Shakespeare considered art? And if so, aren't they therefore open to different interpretations? What gives art it's power is the fact that it has the ability to stir the emotions of anyone who experiences it. Anyone. And because everyone is different and unique in their own way, doesn't it stand to reason that art MUST be open to different interpretations? So, why make a comment like that? By trying to take away art's ability to mean different things to different people, you are essentially taking away the lifeblood of art. That's what purists will never understand.

Now, on the other hand, does that mean that this new version of "Romeo and Juliet" works? Not really, although it is certainly a watchable film, thanks to some strong performances by a fiercely talented cast.

This version, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo and Claire Danes as Juliet, takes place in what is (I guess) present day California. Director Baz ("Strictly Ballroom") Luhrmann fills his version of this story with all sorts of flashy camera angles, quick edits, and a pounding musical score. I'm guessing that the reason director Luhrmann sets the story in the present is to make Shakespeare more "accessible" to younger audiences. Many teenagers have a tough time with the works of Shakespeare (as I did) mainly because they feel too "removed" from the content of his plays, as well as being put off by the style of his writing. If Luhrmann's goal was to make a movie that teenagers could relate to, then I have to say that I don't really believe he was successful in his endeavor. The reason? Because HIS vision is, in and of itself, every bit as whacked out and incomprehensible as any teenager's perception of Shakespeare's writing style. Sure, I had a hard time understanding Shakespeare, but I also had an equally hard time trying to comprehend the opening sequence of this film, which consists of several ba-zillion cuts, every weird camera angle imaginable, and a slew of second-rate filmmaking tricks. Luhrmann isn't making this story "accessible" as much as turning it into a bad music video.

The best film interpretations are ones where the filmmakers challenge themselves in their own interpretations. For all the hype surrounding this interpretation of "Romeo and Juliet", the film is surprisingly lacking in ambition. Director Luhrmann and his co-writer, Craig Pearce, have changed the setting in which the story takes place, but what they have failed to do is to film the story in a way so that the characters feel like they're INHABITING the surroundings in which they have been placed. Basically, the movie never evolves into anything more than a simple "show". In high school, we took a class trip to see a stage production of "Romeo and Juliet", and while it was tough to grasp at first, by the end we were completely caught up in what was happening to the characters - there was a love there, a passion for their work that transcended my own lack of comprehension toward Shakespeare. Alas, that kind of passion is what is missing from this film interpretation. While watching the film, I never got the feeling that director Luhrmann really THOUGHT about Shakespeare's work, and how it could fit in with the setting he was hoping to create. Essentially, he just changed the setting, kept the dialogue (which is a decent effort and easily commendable, yet unfortunately doesn't work as well as the filmmakers anticipated), used all sorts of needless camera tricks and weird editing techniques, and let THAT pass as his "interpretation". A little more pre-production thought might have worked better than an abundance of post-production effects.

Although in my opinion, this interpretation of "Romeo and Juliet" isn't very effective, it is still a somewhat entertaining movie. The cast is phenomenal - Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes are two of our finest young actors today, and THEY bring an "accessibility" to the roles of Romeo and Juliet that unfortunately isn't matched by the production surrounding them. Also noteworthy are Pete ("In the Name of the Father", "Dragonheart") Postlethwaite as Father Laurence and Miriam Margoyles as the Nurse.

For a better interpretation of Shakespeare, there are a couple of recent films that do a much more effective job than "Romeo and Juliet" - one is "Richard III", starring Ian McKellen; the other is the recent documentary "Looking for Richard", directed by Al Pacino. Both of those films demonstrate a thoughtfulness; a passion for the works of Shakespeare and an endeavor to convey that passion to the audience. In the case of "Romeo and Juliet", the goal is not to bring the audience closer to Shakespeare, but rather to bring Shakespeare closer to the target audience, and make millions of dollars in the process. On that score, they'll probably succeed.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney Critically Ill

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