Fox // 1997 // 120 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // August 26th, 1999
The classic tale of star cross'd lovers in fair Verona.
A timeless tale of tragic, youthful love with a modern twist is brought to live once again, only to be handled with typical indifference by 20th Century Fox.
One of the true measures of the brilliance of William Shakespeare's work is the number of times that his plays have been presented, adapted, updated, and changed in so many ways, yet the substance remains as solid and timeless as ever. Too many people seem to feel that Shakespeare must be kept in a box, stuck with the original settings and period costumes, filmed straight ahead with conventional music, and that "thinking outside the box" is Shakespearean heresy.
Well, tie me to the stake and light the fire, because I'm a true blue heretic. The only sin in presenting Shakespeare, as far as I am concerned, would be to alter the meaning of the text. All else is in play, although I think a lot of the charm and rhythm is lost when the original dialogue is adapted from the text. If we are not allowed to play with the presentation of Shakespeare, then the play will become too comfortable and conventional, and we may lose the ability to find new facets in the jewel. That would be a tragedy of epic proportions.
Before you delve deep into this movie, just be warned that this is a very unconventional setting for Romeo + Juliet. The story is set in a very modern urban setting, where the feuding Montague and Capulet families remain powerful and influential, except they control many businesses, advertise quite openly, and are understandably under substantial media scrutiny. Horses are now colorful and well-shaped cars, and weapons have morphed from swords into firearms, but are inscribed with classic names (like sword, or broadsword!) and are referred to as if they were traditional weapons.
You sure won't see any period costumes here, only a prevalence of colorful Hawaiian shirts and other striking clothing. Fortunately, as much as the setting is changed, the dialogue is straight from the Shakespearean text, which I think is part of the charm of this version, as it sets up a striking contrast. Other facets of this film adaptation worth noting are the use of dizzying editing, rapid camera techniques, and touches of humor added to the otherwise textual action.
For those of you who slept through English classes, we begin our story when a group of Montague boys, out for a good time, pull into a gas station and into a confrontation with a set of Capulet boys, led by the well-named Prince of Cats, Tybalt (John Leguizamo). Matters deteriorate as the street fight worsens, until the police, let by Captain Prince (Vondie Curtis-Hall) order them to throw their "mistempered weapons to the ground." Captain Prince is none to happy with this latest public brawl, and orders the respective patriarchs, Ted Montague (Brian Dennehy) and Fulgencio Capulet (Paul Sorvino) to keep the peace on pain of death.
Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) is despondent and very moody of late, which worries his parents and his cousin Benvolio (Dash Mihok). Romeo is lovelorn, wanting desperately to find love and sick at not having found it. Juliet (Claire Danes) is none too pleased with her lot, where her father and her mother, Gloria Capulet (Diane Venora) seem very fond of handsome Dave Paris (Paul Rudd), son of the Governor, as a prospective mate for her. Meanwhile, preparations continue for a lavish costume party at the Capulet estate.
Benvolio continues to try valiantly to lift Romeo's spirits, but with limited success, until Romeo's best friend Mercutio (Harold Parrineau Jr.) shows up with high spirits and an invitation for him and guests to attend the grand Capulet party. It takes some convincing, but eventually it is agreed that Mercutio and his Montague friends will attend the event. The party is done on a grand scale, but none of the grandeur impresses Romeo until he gets his first look of fair Juliet. The sparks fly all about the room as love at first sight takes hold. Juliet flirts and is coy initially, but Romeo's ardor is persistent. Even after the party is over, Romeo sneaks back onto the Capulet grounds and meets his Juliet, professing his love in such passionate terms that Juliet's heart is won. A marriage is in the air, as the young couple use her nurse (Miriam Margolyes) as a spirited go-between to arrange the details. Romeo arranges with his friend Father Laurence (Pete Postlethwaite) to provide the blessings, and in secret the couple is wed.
Happiness is short-lived, when Tybalt catches up with Romeo and delivers some bluntly traumatic insults. Romeo is not in the mood to fight back, and it is up to Mercutio to save the day, but at a high price. Romeo is driven into a white-hot rage, relentlessly pursuing Tybalt and then exacting his revenge. The consequences of this death are severe, as Captain Prince spares Romeo's life but orders him banished from fair Verona. Romeo despairs of his future with Juliet if he is banned from Verona, but his confidant, Father Laurence, urges him to have hope that matters will work out. They have one secret night of wedded bliss before Romeo must flee.
In his absence, matters worsen for Juliet when her father, with her mother's support, announces in no uncertain terms that she will wed the well-connected Dave Paris in a very few days or be cast out of her own home. Nearly frantic at the prospect, Juliet is diverted from suicide by the counsel of Father Laurence. He convinces her to feign death for 24 hours with a potion, so that when she wakes she will meet up with Romeo and flee together. She does so, but an ill wind begins to blow when Father Laurence's letter to Romeo, with full details of the plan, fails to reach him. Even worse, news of Juliet's "death" does, provoking him to total despair. Romeo goes to meet Juliet on her "deathbed" for one final meeting, which ends in shocking tragedy for all concerned.
The video is a strong point, even for this non-anamorphic transfer. The color palette used by Romeo + Juliet is rich and vibrant, and the DVD takes full advantage. Colors are rich and well saturated without bleeding, blacks are generally good (but could use some improvement), but the picture is on the soft side. There is some slight shimmering, and a smattering of dirt and blemishes, but neither of these faults is very distracting.
The audio was a lot more active and energetic than I had expected for even an updated Shakespearean movie. The action sequences use techniques similar to those on the video side, with rapid channel switching as effects bounce between left to right, accompanied by vigorous use of the subwoofer to add significant bass. Dialogue, the critical component of any Shakespearean movie, is clearly understood, and the oddball soundtrack mix of classical and modern music is cleanly presented throughout the frequency spectrum. If the video didn't keep you interested, the audio should at least keep you awake!
I think the cast works well with the modern adaptation, though not without its weaknesses. Brian Dennehy and Paul Sorvino are perfect as the powerful patriarchs of feuding families, though only Paul Sorvino gets a decent amount of use. Pete Postlethwaite seems very comfortable with the dialogue and his role, which helps to support the lead actors. Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes play their roles well, and certainly convey the youthful passion necessary for their parts. There's just something about DiCaprio, despite his abilities, that doesn't seem right for the part. John Leguizamo is a good scene-chewer as Tybalt, but could do with a dose more substance. Harold Parrineau Jr. is perhaps the best of the younger set of actors, handling his role with substance and style, while Vondie Curtis-Hall is a better actor than the limited role of Captain Prince would allow.
The story, well, you think I'm going to pick apart Shakespeare here? That's a topic best left to English literature classes everywhere, but permit me, gentle reader, some quick observations. Given the subject of youthful love, you can understand how such a passionate and all-consuming love affair can spring out of thin air and don't demand elaborate set-ups. However, I would say that the flaws are in the tragic ending of the story, which skips over some details in its haste and makes willful blindness a too-convenient element.
The extras are, yea, verily, a continuing sore spot for 20th Century Fox discs. You get a good quality widescreen (about 1.85:1) theatrical trailer, and animated menus that incorporate music. That's it. Oddly enough, the back of the box depicts a main menu that is completely different from the actual main menu.
You probably are going to like or hate this movie, because there's just not a lot of room in between. It takes its share of liberties with the traditionally presented text, with a sense of over-the-top style that is more at home on MTV than on a Shakespeare presentation. However, since I doubt that Shakespeare gets as much coverage in high school and college as it once did, I applaud a version of Romeo and Juliet that is likely to be more accessible to the younger set but without dumbing down the classic dialogue.
A treat for the eyes and ears, Romeo + Juliet will demand that you concentrate to follow the dialogue, or you'll get lost quickly. You will be pleased if you exert the effort to follow along, almost as if you are learning a new language. An absolute must for a rental, at its high price ($30) and limited extras I would advise a purchase only if you are a devoted fan of Shakespeare.
We few, we happy few, who appreciate Shakespeare acquit the film but find 20th Century Fox guilty of treason for this non-anamorphic and feature-poor disc. Off to the Tower with you!
Review content copyright © 1999 Nicholas Sylvain; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Theatrical Trailer