It can be quite a surprise to watch the 1996 film version of “Romeo and Juliet” for someone who is much familiar with William Shakespeare’s works. The storyline might still depict the original plot of the famous Elizabethan play, but with a first glance at the film’s poster or trailer, one may think that there is an absolute difference between the film and the play. By initially judging the film based on visual presentations, it has a distinct impression of being a modern film. The characters were transformed from Elizabethan to downtown punks of Miami.
This was obvious in the way their costume and environment were designed. Graffiti was also visible anywhere in the film, and most of the Montague and Capulet boys carried guns which can be reflective of the situation in America at that period of time when illegal possession of firearms, gang wars, car chases, and great deal of media involvement were the pervading issues. As James Loehlin puts it, “Luhrmann confronts the social realities as well as the media modes of the new millennium” (Loehlin 360).
When Luhrmann made use of an anchorwoman reporting the deaths of “star-crossed lovers,” he portrayed how television was becoming a major part of our society and how it was cultivating our culture. If one would look at the personal history of the director, it can be noticed that Baz Luhrmann is a visionary director who is fond of staging colorful and ornamental productions. According to his profile in the Internet Movie Database, he is known for his frequent use of “bright distinct colors and fast-paced editing” (Biography for Baz Luhrmann).
As a child, he also had an early exposure to ballroom and movie theater which is evident in his filmmaking skills. These trademarks can be constantly seen in his Red Curtain trilogy which includes Strictly Ballroom, Romeo and Juliet, and the highly acclaimed Moulin Rouge. He is also described in the Excel Senior High School Fundamentals of English as, “an expressionistic filmmaker who uses images to create moods, atmosphere, distractions and comic effects” (Mahony 174). Consequentially, the end product of his films has obvious traces of his personal history.
His theatrical skills are rooted from his early encounter with the world of theater and films. Thus, the 1996 film version of Romeo and Juliet, cannot deny the fact that it still insinuates a theatrical aura with the help of the production design. The film was actually a huge success in the box office when it first came out. However, it was inevitable to receive mixed reviews from critics and audiences worldwide. In a film review by Peter Travers in Rolling Stone, he stated that, “Luhrmann and his two bright angels have shaken up a 400-year-old play without losing its touching, poetic innocence” (Travers).
However, Roger Ebert of Chicago Sun-Times gave a negative review where he claimed that, “I have never seen anything remotely approaching the mess that the new punk version of Romeo & Juliet makes of Shakespeare’s tragedy” (Ebert). Thus, for a film adapted from literature, it is really quite hard to please majority of the audience, considering these conflicting reviews. Nevertheless, one thing that is impressive with Luhrmann’s concept is that fact that he based his film not only through the famous play but also from the social realities which are happening on our today’s youth.
Just like the death of Romeo and Juliet, youth violence threatens the world of unsolvable conflicts and morality problems. William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is not just another “teen flick. ” Youth may be its target audience, but it is absolutely more sensible and expressionistic than teen films. It conveys a message that aims to open up its audience to the reality that they are the generation who has the capability to solve the world’s current problems.