Baz Lurhman’s modernization of Shakespeare’s classic “Romeo and Juliet” was, in my opinion, very successful and brought Shakespeare to a whole new audience. He combines modern issues with Shakespearian language to great effect, resulting in a rather contemporary but very enjoyable film.
The main difference between the play and the film is that instead of ancient Verona in Italy, the film is set on Verona beach in modern day America. At first the film seems strange as the play is set in the present era yet all the actors are speaking in Shakespearian dialect, but as the film continues this adds to the impressiveness and excitement of it. By casting young popular actors/actresses like Leonardo Di Caprio and Clare Danes Baz Lurhman has brought in a younger audience who would not otherwise go to see a work by William Shakespeare, and the fact that the film is set in modern America and has scenes of violence involving guns and fighting would draw in more of a male audience than if it was set in 16th Century England.
I think that by incorporating modern issues such as homosexuality, drugs and violence he has made the film more relevant to today’s society. In the film it was never openly stated that Mercutio was gay, but hints are made at his homosexuality when he dresses up as a woman and by his feelings towards Romeo; he certainly likes Romeo a lot-you could almost call it infatuation. Hallucinogenic drugs are taken by the Montague boys before the party; this brings in a modern twist to the story. Another modern perk to the film is the fighting between the Capulet’s and the Montague’s, featuring guns-which can commonly be found on many American streets nowadays.
Baz Lurhman has been very clever in the subtle connections he has implied between Shakespeare’s play and his version, for example in the fight scene he subconsciously plants the idea of fire in your mind as the camera focuses on the sign reading “add more fuel to your fire”; on the side of the guns the word ‘sword’ was written, and of course swords were used instead of guns in the ‘old’ version. Also on their guns each families’ coat of arms adorned the handle of the pistol. The camera picked up on each of these factors by zooming in while all other action in that scene was frozen for a few seconds. Another example of this is the number plates on the cars, as while the camera zooms in on them the background is still. The camera pauses at first by each of the main characters and families and displays their name, as if to tell you who is who and who belongs to which family.
The cinematography in this film is stunning as the camera acts like a human eye; it looks all around, darts from scene to scene, often circles people and closes in on things of interest. The camera very much focuses on facial expressions at times, a good example of this is when Juliet has just watched Romeo drink the poison; the camera closes in on her face so that it almost covers the entire screen and focuses on the one tear slowly rolling down her cheek, or during the fight scene near the start, the camera ‘slam zooms’ on their eyes. The camera also goes quite far away from the objects in more panoramic shot; like at the start when it flies over the town of Verona and also when Romeo learns that Juliet is dead, the camera spiralled away from him up into the sky.
A lot of attention is paid to water in the film. Juliet is first seen underwater in the bath, Romeo and Juliet first see each other through a fish tank and during the balcony scene they are in the swimming pool for quite a while, the splash of the water breaks up the otherwise silent background. The lighting in the film was used to great effect; the fairy lights in the Capulet garden provided an illuminated background, Juliet was silhouetted against the light from the lift and light was often used to light or shade people’s faces. The flashing light at the start of the film showing clips of what is to come is to entice you to keep watching and to implant the images in your brain. Sound is another important aspect during this film, when Romeo is at the party and his head is spinning because of the drugs he takes everything around him becomes blurred and all the background sounds are merged together, silence is also used quite often, like in the death scene, when the church is deadly quiet until the gunshot which kills Juliet shatters it.
I think the best scenes in the whole film are the balcony scene and the death scene in the church.
In the balcony scene lighting played a major part, the fairy lights draped on the wall created a soft illuminated background, the underwater lights in the pool gave the water a beautiful blue colouring and drew attention to it, Juliet was silhouetted against the light from the lift as she came down into the garden, the light thrown from Juliet’s window lit up half of Romeos face and light shimmering on the pool was reflected into their faces. The way in which the lines are spoken throughout this scene really add to the suspense, Romeo says with such burning passion “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun” he whispers his lines when Juliet gets out of the lift, and then builds up the excitement in his voice when he is talking to her. Juliet’s white dress implies pureness and makes her look like an angel; there were night sounds in the garden like crickets which added to the atmosphere and the splash of the water as they fell into the pool rang out in the night.
Light was also very important in the death scene, the hundreds of candles provided a heavenly atmosphere, and the steps look like steps to heaven, and also making the whole scene look very symmetrical. The neon signs on the sides of the seats leading up the aisle draw your eye to the vocal point, which is the sleeping Juliet. The white dress she is wearing and all the white around her symbolises the wedding she never had, and the double bed she is laid upon represents her marital bed. When Romeo arrives and lies on the bed beside Juliet the camera shows lots of facial views, it shows him crying for her, and ripping her ring off the chain on his neck and putting it on her finger.
Then as Romeo proceeds to drink the poison Juliet slowly wakes up, it shows close ups of her eyes and how she smiles when she sees Romeo, then as Romeo swallows the poison Juliet reaches out to stroke his face; you can see the horror in his eyes, the light from the candles shines in his eyes as he slowly sinks to the bed. Once Romeo has died the camera automatically goes to Juliet, focusing on her face, and the solitary tear dripping down it, her eyes flicker and there is silence all around, then suddenly the silence is broken by a cry from Juliet. As she lifts her hand Romeo’s chain is still attached to the ring, and then in slow motion as if to really make you think about what is happening she reaches for the gun, as it is silent the sound of her cocking the gun echoes and then as she slowly lifts it to her head the camera starts to rise up. At the moment the gun is fired the camera looks away, as the sound rings out throughout the church. As Juliet is slumped over Romeo the camera gradually gets further away, as if it is their souls rising up to heaven.
If I was directing the balcony scene I would get the actor playing Romeo to creep gently and quietly into the Capulet garden, and as Juliet appears at the window he should quickly dart underneath the balcony so as not to be seen, then whisper with wonder “But, soft!” then pause and listen, “What light through yonder window breaks?”. Then edge out a little further so he can see Juliet, and gazing up at her whisper with longing in his voice “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!”. With his voice getting slightly louder he says “Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon” He should carry on looking up at her whilst he half whispers his lines, and then with passion in his voice say “It is my lady; O! it is my love” He continues on with his lines and then leaning further out to get a better view of Juliet he whispers with a look of yearning on his face “See! How she leans her cheek upon her hand: O! that I were a glove upon that hand, That I might touch that cheek”. Then Juliet says aloud in desperation “Ay me!”, Romeo jumps back below the balcony in surprise, then looking hopeful he gently whispers “She speaks:” then pauses for a second “O! speak again, bright angel”.
Romeo continues with his lines until again Juliet speaks. Gazing out into the night she cries out “O Romeo” pausing to step forward, “Romeo” then she gets louder “wherefore art thou Romeo?”. Then desperately, as if searching for an answer she says “Deny thy father, and refuse thy name; Or, if thou wilt not , be but sworn my love, And I’ll no longer be a Capulet”. From under the balcony Romeo wonders to himself, and quietly whispers “Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?”
As Juliet starts to say more, Romeo stands beneath the balcony silently listening to all that is said, Juliet continues talking as if trying to prove that it is only their names that stand in their way, as she gets more worked up she moans “O! be some other name”. Romeo has been listening to all this and walks out into the garden were he can be seen from the balcony and says in a trusting, hopeful voice “I take thee at thy word. Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptiz’d; Henceforth I never will be Romeo.” Juliet jumps in shock, she didn’t see Romeo and a look of surprise spread over her face. He climbs up the wall to the balcony as Juliet nervously glances around in case anyone might come along, As they talk their words are fast and urgent as if they have no time left and must get everything crammed in. After they have talked for a while Juliet takes Romeo to one side and whispers with urgency and worry in her voice “If they do see thee they will murder thee!” Romeo coolly replies, gazing into her eyes, “Alack! There lies more peril in thine eye than twenty of their swords; look thou but sweet, And I am proof against their enmity.” Juliet worries for Romeo’s life and wants him to leave, but Romeo is in love and with a look of adoration towards Juliet he simply states “My life were better ended by their hate,
Than death prorogued, wanting of thy love.” Juliet continues on to say that if he is serious then to marry her, they part with a final kiss, and as Romeo disappears into the night Juliet looks out into the darkness with a look of contentment on her face.
The play Romeo and Juliet is complex and difficult to stage. I would very much enjoy a chance to produce it in the theatre or as a film.