When the twentieth anniversary of director Baz Luhrmann’s audacious Shakespeare adaptation Romeo + Juliet recently arrived, people took notice. Articles popped up in publications large and small, and fans reminisced and celebrated on social media. Like Scream and Trainspotting – two other youth-oriented films from 1996 – Romeo + Juliet, which relocates the classic play’s action to a surreal, contemporary urban landscape while retaining an abridged version of the Bard’s original text, is iconic and epochal. There are images from it that are not only instantly recognizable for swaths of filmgoers, but also powerfully evocative of an era. So why, on this auspicious anniversary, am I feeling a bit defensive regarding the film?
Perhaps I haven’t quite shaken off the skepticism that some critics voiced upon its initial release. For instance, Roger Ebert didn’t mince words in his review in 1996, writing, “This production was a very bad idea,” and going on to call the film “badly confused.” Or perhaps my defensiveness arises from the way many writers hedged their bets in recent retrospectives by indicating how young they were when they first encountered the film, offering their past youth and present nostalgia as at least a partial explanation for their ongoing affections. In The Guardian, film critic Guy Lodge indicated that he was thirteen when Romeo + Juliet “sent an instant neon shockwave through [his] high school.” For Jezebel, Madeleine Davies grudgingly admitted that when she rewatches the film as an adult, she is “still seized by the same feeling [she] got when watching it in the theater at nine or 10.”
Even as they hail Romeo + Juliet as a classic, many critics do so blushingly, as if afraid that there is something inherently immature, naïve, or otherwise embarrassing about being swept away by the rich visuals and fierce emotions of Luhrmann’s adaptation. (This embarrassment may at least partly have to do with the way media that appeals to teenage girls is so frequently singled out as unserious and worthy of ruthless mockery; teenage girls are of course one of the audiences who have best appreciated the image of Claire Danes’ Juliet wrapped in the arms of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo over these twenty years.) Nevertheless, I see no reason to add qualifications when praising Romeo + Juliet. It is more than a teen romance, more than a glittery study guide for kids struggling through their English assignments, and more than a compendium of MTV era visual tropes and quick editing. Indeed, while the film’s reputation as an “MTV” take on Shakespeare is not unearned – the climactic scene set in a church lined with neon crosses and overcrowded with burning candles is redolent of many a rock music video – the case has perhaps been overstated.
Some of us may have forgotten – because of sequences like the film’s hyperactive opening, which features a Sergio Leone-inspired shoot-‘em-up at a gas station – but Romeo + Juliet, for all of its gleeful excesses, also contains quieter moments that linger on the mind. For instance, after Romeo kills Juliet’s cousin Tybalt in an altercation, he pauses to process the full implications of what he has done. Luhrmann holds us in that moment, keeping DiCaprio in an intense close-up as his eyes widen, and the audience is forced to confront the weight of Romeo’s actions with him. It’s a wordless moment that’s arguably more effective than Romeo’s showier cry of “I am fortune’s fool!” an instant later, and it’s one of the many small, comparatively restrained details that ground the film and give it authentic emotional stakes.
Those little details – and the performances behind them – are what make the story’s familiar, foregone tragic ending feel more bruising and immediate than some might have thought possible. The lovers’ final scene unfolds slowly and at times in near-silence, and the shift away from hyperkinetic action and pulsing music gives this pivotal part of the story an appropriately funereal quality. Luhrmann and his co-writer Craig Pearce also ramp up Shakespeare’s already potent dramatic irony: as Romeo prepares to drink his poison, Juliet shows almost-imperceptible signs of waking. She reaches for him just when it’s too late. Thus, in this production, both of our star-crossed lovers die knowing how cruelly fate has treated them. The effect is brutal. Though Luhrmann does offer a morbidly peaceful tableau of the two deceased lovers following Juliet’s suicide – the camera looks down on the pair, surrounded by lighted candles, and they almost appear to be floating among stars in the night sky – it’s followed very quickly by the stark and unromantic image of a body bag being loaded into an ambulance. The unforgettable candy colors that characterize the film’s look for much of its running time are all but absent in the end, as Romeo and Juliet’s parents face the deaths of their children in the steely blue light of early morning. In the original play, Lord Montague and Lord Capulet each vow to a erect statue of the other man’s lost child, but Luhrmann and Pearce excise these lines and remain focused not on the arrival of a “glooming peace” between the warring families, but rather on the irreparable loss of the two lovers.
I admit that it makes sense that Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet inspires nostalgia. That it was a formative cinematic experience for many is no debit; it helped inspire its fans to think more deeply about cinema, culture, style, and Shakespeare than some may have otherwise. But I do think it’s worth acknowledging that, nostalgia aside, Luhrmann’s film stands up on its own as a thoroughly transporting, emotionally resonant experience. Of course it can remind you of being a teenager and having movie star crushes, or of living through the 1990s, if, like me, you’re someone who did. But more importantly, it can still break your heart.