Seventeen years on and Baz Luhrmann's postmodern take on the bard's quintessential tragedy still works like gangbusters.
It’s being re-released for Valentine’s Day, but Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s 'Romeo And Juliet' originally came out in cinemas in 1996. That was 17 years ago – before the ubiquity of the internet or DVD. Back then, most people probably watched the film on VHS tapes: those obsolete blocks of plastic that are now impossible to watch and difficult to dispose of.
Today, if you download the film, a similarly anachronistic piece of technology will appear on the screen of your laptop. The opening scene of Romeo + Juliet consists of a black backdrop, with an obviously analogue television at centre 'stage'. The camera zooms in as an anchorwoman "lay[s] our scene", reading the Prologue to the great romantic tragedy as if it were just another news item. This is Shakespeare for the (M)TV generation; all the world’s a stage, one you watch from your living room. Yet Luhrmann’s film has a more complicated contextual relationship.
To an extent, Romeo + Juliet now appears as much of a '90s relic as video tapes. The Gen-X Capulets spend their days cruising around in an open-top sports car and come up on ecstasy at the Montague’s grand ball. Romeo scores his poison from a seedy wife-beater-wearing dealer, and the brilliant soundtrack features tracks from Radiohead, Garbage, The Cardigans, Quindon Tarver, One Inch Punch, Kim Mazelle, and, erm, Des’ree.
Yet Romeo + Juliet is not straightforwardly set in the real-time and place in which it was made. The fictional 'Verona Beach' is instead a postmodern, retro-futuristic fantasy world – somewhere that exists in a kind of historical no-man’s land, populated by ghosts from both high and popular culture, past and present. Here, gangs wield hand-guns branded 'Sword', and pink and blue neon crosses blaze alongside flickering votive candles.
Yet the film doesn't feel dated. Aesthetically, it is just as stunning, part pastiche, part sincerely classical. Shakespeare’s centuries-old dialogue somersaults though scenes that borrow from Spaghetti Westerns, Tarantino, theatre and dance, and innovative new takes on the original text, such as the famous scene where Romeo and Juliet first glimpse each other across the divide of an aquarium.
It remains just as clear, too, that the performances by the actors, Clare Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio, who play these lead parts, is what really makes the film work. Danes was only 16 at the time and came from playing Angela Chase in the US TV series My So-Called Life. DiCaprio was 22, and had previously appeared in Growing Pains, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Basketball Diaries. Theirs were the true faces of '90s teen cinema.
Somehow, though, in Romeo + Juliet, they appear touchingly timeless. Perhaps this is partly because, in the key scenes, they are either in costume, in the true sense of the word (Juliet embodying Romeo’s description of her as a "bright angel" by donning a pair of wings, and Romeo looking more vulnerable than formidable in a too-big suit of chainmail), or not wearing anything at all.
Danes (now 33) is currently playing a CIA officer in Fox’s Homeland and DiCaprio (now 38) stars in Luhrmann’s forthcoming adaptation of 'The Great Gatsby'. No longer "a stranger in the world", Romeo + Juliet has existed in it for coming-up-to two decades now. The world may have changed, but the film has remained as fervid and fresh-faced as its central star-crossed lovers.
An angel and a knight, kissing in a swimming pool. Come on.
"These violent delights have violent ends."
Look back on your first love, without it making you wince.