Post-modern `Romeo and Juliet' features mediocre acting but expert cinematography

by Vikki Otero

My experience of going to see the new Romeo and Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes was initially frightening.

A girl in line in front of me could not get in because she was under 13. Inside, my friends and I were surrounded by pubescent boys and girls who had not yet gotten to the point in their high school careers where they read Romeo and Juliet . Actually, most of them probably were not in high school yet.

There is no doubt about it: Romeo and Juliet is primarily aimed at a teenage female audience (the many close-ups of DiCaprio give that away). But do not let the the film's audience, which resembles that of a New Kids on the Block concert, deter you from seeing this pleasant surprise.

You know the familiar story: Shakespeare's "star-cross'd lovers" are kept apart by a bitter family feud which ends in tragedy. Co-writers Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce set this classic tale in the present-day Verona Beach, Calif., and turn the Montagues and Capulets into something resembling gang rivals. There are no lines added, though some are removed; it still retains the original Shakespearean text. However, a couple of musical sequences are added for which Shakespeare cannot take credit.

It is difficult not to find the first few minutes of the film tremendously off-putting. Little dialogue is uttered before the Montagues and Capulets, in different, but equally hideous, costumes and cars, engage in a shootout in front of a gas station. This had me thinking, "This is silly. This is wrong. Get me out of this damn movie!"

Shortly after the opening, however, Romeo and Juliet began to display its strengths. The complex cinematography and juxtaposition of Shakespeare's original play with modern-day California was brilliant. The massive concrete holy monument in the middle of this town of urban decay gave the film a tremendous post-modern feel that had me revelling in how expertly the film's goal was achieved.

Things like the neon Montague and Capulet signs adorning the tops of skyscrapers made me feel just uncomfortable enough to take special notice of them. Another nice touch was the special attention paid to details like the brand names of the guns. Tybalt's Rapier-brand pistol was a prime example of the film's commitment to remain true to Shakespeare's text while still becoming logically modern. Also, I was overwhelmed by the choir boys' rendition of Prince's "When Doves Cry" in Friar Laurence's chapel.

For the most part, the acting was mediocre and left much to be desired; few scenes were truly memorable for the acting. The title characters were fine; neither Danes nor DiCaprio (who is much older than he looks) was painful to watch, though I suspect that their casting was more a result of their dazzling good looks than their mastery of Shakespearean dialogue.

One exception to the generally mediocre acting was the performance of Harold Perrineau in the role of Mercutio. He was quite a screen-dominator, performing his role with the passion that one would expect from a member of a Shakespearean company and pulling off the modern twists hilariously.

Pete Postlethwaite was also notable as Friar Laurence. He was passionate and touching, and his massive cross tattoo was another slightly-uncomfortable-yet-somehow-fitting element of the movie.

When you see Romeo and Juliet , you are not going for the story or the acting, but to see a well-made and symbolically-rich film. The expert cinematography and the remarkable way in which the production team manages to pull off the juxtaposition of the Renaissance and the modern makes it seem like a post-modern masterpiece rather than a jumbled mess. Because of this, Romeo and Juliet is worth seeing at least once. In fact, I will probably see it again.

This item appeared in the Arts & Entertainment section of the November 8, 1996 issue.

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