Shakespeare is so revered that I think someone could mount a nude production and still no one would dare say the Emperor has no clothes. Those who teach the plays of William Shakespeare (a.k.a. The Bard, 1564-1616) seem to revel in the words so much that they'll overlook a lot. And the great unwashed? We just know what we like, and if you're sitting there thinking WTF, it kind of blurs the line.
While "the visionary director Baz Luhrmann" formerly known as Baz Luhrmann blew people away with his updating of the "Romeo and Juliet" tragedy that paired modern costumes and images with Shakespeare's archaic dialogue and substituted handguns for swords, anachronistic productions of Shakespeare are nothing new. I mean, it's almost more daring to do as the Folger Shakespeare Theatre did in 1997 and produce a version set in true middle-class suburbia, where the party scene is replaced by a backyard barbecue. Compared to that, Venice Beach and "Verona" California and the "gangsta" lifestyle glorified here is downright glitzy. But something like this hadn't been done before in film, so maybe "ballsy" is a better adjective for Luhrmann than "visionary." After all, you're trusting that young people and old will be so struck by the clash of sounds and images that they'll marvel, even if they're not understanding all the dialogue.
Alas, you get the feeling that the bizarre, quick-paced, flash-cut MTV style Luhrmann employs often works against Shakespeare's dialogue. Intended to clash and thereby make the Bard's lines seem more palatable to modern audiences--to get his words to a new group using a "hip" style that speaks to them--the frenetic pacing makes it even harder to process the language. "Romeo + Juliet" also often seems bizarre for the sake of being bizarre. That may be fine, but what's lost (or at least obscured) in the process is the simple and tragic love story and the questions of fate and feuds that swirl around it in a traditional performance. Luhrmann said he borrowed liberally from three different decades of American style and pop-culture, and I can't help but think that such borrowings add to the narrative confusion as much as they make the visuals interesting.
Some of what Luhrmann does is positively brilliant. I mean, what better way to introduce the language than by having a news anchor offering the introduction to the play as if it were a TV news story. Such a gambit implies that this indeed is the language that everyone speaks. But the opening is also more leisurely, so we actually understand what the woman is saying and have a chance to process it in our brain "translators." The famous balcony scene is also quite fun, whereupon the pair ends up falling, fully clothed, into the pool while security guards watch the monitors and patrol the perimeter. It works because it feels more honest than most of this film. There just aren't enough lucid moments like this when we can really appreciate the characters and the dilemma of Romeo and Juliet (pronounced Hoo-liet in this production).
I personally felt the material growing tedious and tiresome, and that's a direct result of a flashy style that dominates so much that we end up not processing as much of the dialogue as we should, or caring about the characters as much as we need to in order to "stay tuned." As good as Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio are in the title roles, we don't attach to them in the same way as we did with Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 screen version--which remains the best cinematic retelling.
Shakespeare's original play incorporated comic elements into an otherwise tragic tale, and Luhrmann does the same thing. But he does it as over-the-top as the style, and the result is something that makes you feel as if he's doing a parody of "Romeo and Juliet," finding the right comic tone only in that pool scene and precious few others.
When all is screamed and done--for everything about "Romeo + Julie" seems shrill and full of urgency, with nary a truly quiet moment--there are far better adaptations out there, and Luhrmann finds a much better outlet for his style in "Moulin Rouge!"
Say what you will of the content, the audio-video experience is marvelous, especially for a 1996 film. Colors are as bold as the gunmen, and bright as . . . well, none of these characters. Black levels are strong, as is edge detail. And the general level of detail brings to vivid life the sensory experience Luhrmann was going for. I saw no problems with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50-gig Blu-ray disc, and the film, presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio, looks stunning in 1080p HD.
Same with the audio, which is a crisp, resonant English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that's as dynamic as can be. It's hyper-clear, with a nice pure-sounding timbre and decent distribution across the speakers. Additional audio options are Spanish and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 and French Dolby Digital 2.0, with subtitles in English SDH, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Luhrmann is joined by production designer Catherine Martin, cinematographer Donald M. McAlpine, and co-writer Craig Pearce for a picture-in-picture commentary track that's as lively as the film. At times Luhrmann comes close to convincing me he's right on several counts, but still, listening to their reasons for doing this or that doesn't change the results or the effect that the film has on the viewer. As with the recent "Moulin Rouge!" Blu-ray release, icons appear on this commentary track which, if clicked on, yield up extras which can also be accessed via the main menu.
The main new bonus feature is "Romeo + Juliet: The Music Documentary," which runs some 50 minutes and sheds light on the decisions behind the songs on the soundtrack. Shorter featurettes on "Everybody's Free: The Journey of the Song," "The London Music Mix," and "Temp Music: The Journey of the Song" are also worth watching.
Rounding out the bonus features are things from the "Bazmark Vault"--short clips of behind-the-scenes stuff. Though these are advertised as HD, it's just the borders that are HD. The footage is still rough standard def. And there's the obligatory trailer and galleries, with several on the lighting and photography effects and very short interview clips with the stars and filmmakers.
"Romeo + Juliet" is the kind of film most people are going to love or hate--or else appreciate the clash of style and content for awhile, as I did, and then watch it become tedious. Luhrmann would use the same techniques with better results in "Moulin Rouge!"