I think it’s been popular to bash it in recent years – heck, maybe always – but at least you’ve heard of it. Maybe you read it in its original glory, or saw a college production of it, or just watched Shakespeare in Love and fell into the deep dark pools that are Joseph Fiennes’s eyes. The point is: everyone knows the story of Romeo and Juliet.
The star-crossed lovers (which, by the way, “star crossed” is not a good thing – it means that fate is fucking with your relationship), the battles, the bad blood between families. “Two houses, both alike in dignity in fair Verona where we make our scene…” The story is so powerful that it stands the test of time and high school English classes. Practically any story involving two lovers who aren’t meant to be together is even likened to the ill-fated couple. As if any old love story can be that good.
Fun fact: the story is SO iconic, that Shakespeare didn’t even invent it, he merely improved upon a tale that had already been told and retold.
And sure, it’s sad, but it’s also hilarious: “No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir! But I do bite my thumb.” And epic: “An thou make minstrels of us, look to hear nothing but discords: here’s my fiddlestick; here’s that shall make you dance!” And moving: “See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand! O, that I were a glove upon that hand, that I might touch that cheek!” Ugh, the language is so beautiful, you could swallow it up and drown in it.
And you have to hand it to the Bard – how many stories tell UP FRONT that the main characters die in the end, yet you sit, captivated, through the whole thing? I swear, every time I watch I hope that this time, she will open her eyes a little faster. Of course she never does.
I find Baz Luhrman’s adaptation to be perfection. I tend to hate his other films – his shtick is to be really overdone, and it doesn’t work for me – but this, the vibrantly youthful Leo and Claire balanced against the decadent, violent worlds of their families – this is just great.
Do I really have to recap it for you? Billy can do it instead:
“Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.”
Better in the movie:
- God, where do I start? The modern day setting with the Shakespearean English. It works wonderfully here – funny and charming and I feel like I should use “A plague on both your houses” in every day rants.
- The chemistry between Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes is so palpable, believable and genuine. It’s magic. (And, yeah, I get it. It’s not recommended for young lovers to behave this way.) They both display such a wide-eyed, loving innocence, it’s easy to dismiss the extreme short length of their relationship and just fall in love with them.
- The music. Pure 90’s gold – Garbage, Butthole Surfers, Radiohead. And that theme – “Kissing You” – when they first meet. Chills.
- The styling. I love the Verona Beach scenery, with the Hawaiian shirts and terrible haircuts. I especially love Tybalt (John Leguizamo) and his sideburns and vests!
Worse in the movie:
- I really only have one major qualm with this film: I really, really wish – especially now, with how popular they have gotten – that they had done that scene in the tomb between Paris (an adorable, fresh faced pre-Clueless Paul Rudd) and Romeo. Can you imagine it? We could scrap that weird drug scene in the beginning (though I do LOVE Harold Perrineau’s Mercutio in drag).
The story is classic, no matter how you spin it. And I think this film is also classic in that nostalgic mid-90’s kind of way, if only for watching young Leo’s acting chops. It shall be savored on many lonely couch-surfing nights to come, as it was in my younger years, all teary eyed and sweatshirt-clad.