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Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet’ (1996)

by Emily Duff

I know Shakespeare adaptations are very ‘been there, done that’, but one that I will always love is Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet’. The movie is opinion-splitting, a bit cheesy and cares more for aesthetics than anything else, but it is a comfort film of mine and these are the reasons why:

- Soundtrack 

The classic guitar riff of ‘Talk Show Host’ can be heard repeated constantly throughout the film from beginning to end, giving coverage to the best underrated Radiohead song. Not only this, but ‘Exit (for a Movie) is actually used for the “exit” (end credits) of the movie.

Then we have the gorgeous Des’ree singing ‘I’m Kissing You’ during the costume party scene - a tune that leaves me humming it (less eloquently than Des’ree) for the next few months.

Lastly, honourable mention to Prince’s ‘Doves Cry’ which is sung by a young church choir. Any Prince addition to a soundtrack is going to be a winner, need I say more?

- Retained Shakespearian Language

Lines like, “Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight. For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night” always makes my heart flutter and its films like this that have caused my view of love to be unattainable. There’s something so romantic about that old fashioned way of speaking - even if it does mean you have to listen extra carefully to know what's going on and nothing makes me cringe more than Shakespeare adaptations that try to modernise the script. 

- Progressive in the Mainstream 

Arguably one of the best characters, Mercutio, is not only shown as a femme black man in the 90s but dresses in - albeit comical - drag during the Capulet party. While activism in a Shakespearean adaptation is nothing new (See Derek Jarman’s 1979 ‘The Tempest’), Baz Luhrmann had the credibility within Hollywood, after films like ‘Strictly Ballroom’ and ‘La Boheme’, to bring this to a more popular scene.

- Imagery

Water is used as the film’s leading symbol through the Capulet’s fish tanks, the fountain, and the pool outside of Juliet’s window. Cutting to scenes of Juliet alone with little to no music and submerged in water brings a serenity that juxtaposes the craziness of the world outside her window that Romeo finds himself in. However, water also links the two lovers as we see them first separately with their heads underwater demonstrating their purity before they then meet through the glass of a fish tank - showing water as now romantic and an image for the pair’s naivety. Also set at Verona Beach, the storm of the sea becomes important during deaths as a show of pathetic fallacy.

Water then links to the religious symbolism. A more obvious analysis of water imagery is its links to purity and cleanliness - something important to the plot of unpermitted love as well as the constant bloodshed. Sin is discussed during the couple’s first kiss as Juliet comments, “Then have my lips the sin that they have took.” and Romeo responds, “Sin from my lips?  O trespass sweetly urged! Give me my sin again”. 

- Cast

Nobody is going to complain about seeing a young Leonard DiCaprio in every scene but the highlight for me is Paul Rudd who managed to bring a bit of humour to the pessimistic plot. Though he plays a more minor role, in each scene he is adorable - smiling like a child at the Capulet party and bringing Juliet roses to woo her. 


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