Sunday, June 15, 2008

Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet

The first time I saw Baz Luhrmann’s star-cross’d lovers film, I was seventeen. I saw it with my fifteen-year-old girlfriend in Diamond Bar, California. We loved it, but even then I hated the opening scene with the “capulet boys” and the changes in Mercutio’s death secene. But I really liked the energy of the movie and that it was a movie rather than an adaptation of what happens on stage. I hadn’t seen Branagh’s Henry V yet, so it was the first time I had seen Shakespeare on the screen in a way that was interesting. I just watched it again, and I find that I love and hate the same things about it.

In the opening scene, Gregory and Sampson become Montagues somehow. The confusion of what the men say to each other is an important part of the play in that it creates a world in which the frays and who’s fighting whom in those frays are never quite clear. By changing the houses of the serving men in the opening scene and labeling the cast as they appear, everything’s a little too clear even as we contend with the hiddeous cuts and dashes the camera makes. The first scene looks like bad comedy, which is ok and is often staged that way, but it doesn’t work if the director has already taken a massive liberty with the text to make sense of things. It robs the audience of an experience.

Prince is a police captain here. That might be all right, but the scene where he meets with Capulet is cut, and we never discover that Mercutio and Paris are his kinsmen. When Prince says that he’s lost a bunch of his kinsmen, no one knows what he’s talking about. Leaving in the scene would have worked well because it would help the police angle, giving the police a motivation to do things that really can’t seem real in a contemporary setting.

John Leguizamo is pretty awesome. He plays Tybalt quite evil and looks like the prince of cats in the opening scene with his pistoleering. But when he kills Mercutio, he looks like he does it by accident, and when Romeo shoots him he’s unarmed, so we feel bad for the villain or feel nothing at all as we roll our eyes. Mercutio acts like he wants Romeo to duel Tybalt, and when Romeo says no, Tybalt proceeds to beat the crap out of him. Mercutio intervenes and gets killed. Romeo hunts Tybalt down and shoots him on the steps of some kind of church that has water at the top of the stairway for Tybalt to fall into. The audience has to wonder a little why Tybalt was tunning toward the pool, but whatever. Changing that scene is a capital offense because it hurts the play in several ways. Mercutio picks the fight with Tybalt; he doesn’t save Romeo from an ass-kicking. Tybalt kills Mercutio on purpose and fleas; he doesn’t sit around to see him die in Romeo’s arms looking sorry. Romeo and Tybalt fight; Romeo doesn’t offer himself up to Tybalt, guilting Tybalt into dropping his gun only to be shot by it.

Baz Luhrmann does the lovers’ scenes beautifully. He knows how to use a soudtrack, and he knows how to get his actors to fall in love and how to get his audience to fall in love with them. The film is amazing in that it fails to ruin in the play completely despite its trying very hard to do so. By the end, you’re back to where Shakespeare wanted you. If Baz Luhrman had a Shakespearean expert with any amount of integrity and balls, he might have had a really great movie on his hands.

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