How Does Baz Luhrmann Interpret Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet? Essay
Baz Luhrmann’s reinvention of Shakespeare’s classic Rome and Juliet depicts the classic tragedy through a visual kaleidoscope of Hong Kong action picture paradigms of chaos and colour. The Luhrmann production is unconventional, moving the location to Verona Los Angeles. The trademark use of colour is juxtaposed against the bleak backdrop of gang warfare, which permeates throughout the film.
At the beginning of the film, Luhrmann opens with the prologue. In stark contrast to the well known Zeferelli (1968) version of the tragedy, Luhrmann’s conveys the prologue as a newsreel on the television as a news report. The opening sequences and title scenes of the film plays a vital role in engaging the audience and preparing the audience as to what to expect from the movie with great effect. This places the audience at ease.
The opening sequences and title scenes of both films play a vital role in engaging the audience and preparing the audience as to what to expect from the movie with great effect. Moreover, Luhrmann uses quick flashes of the prologue at the beginning of the film either as news paper headlines or in bold writing. Lurhmann’s visual narrative mirrors Shakespeare’s use of symbolism in the opening scene as there appears a broken ring on the screen. This symbolises the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet’s love story and further mirrors Shakespeare’s lexical technique of dramatic irony in his prose. Moreover, as the newsreader finishes, the camera zooms into the middle of the TV and gives the effect of fast forwarding over the city. The panning to the Jesus statue in the newspaper article emphasises the religious divide between the Montagues and the Capulets, thereby heightening dramatic irony.
Similarly, the brutality of the Luhrmann version is further highlighted by the simultaneous portrayal of heightened, stark realism by portraying the story against the backdrop of gangland LA. This not only opens up Shakespeare to a wider audience, it further demystifies the Shakespearian enigma to highlight the timeless nature of the actual story of Romeo and Juliet by making it work in any setting.
The setting and location in the film is utilised to the same effect with the same intentions in conveying the story to the audience. Other tools that are effective in trying to create a certain ambience are the lighting effect and the cinematography. Luhrmann’s version relies heavily on the use of colour, which again is useful to contrast against Zeferelli’s version.
Indeed, Luhrmann clearly had increased access to advanced cinematography, and therefore the film does not need to rely on the actors’ every move to hold the audience attention, which can nevertheless be just as effective in conveying the story. For example, the Romeo and Juliet introduction utilises many cutaway shots and switches between the narratives to involve the audience directly in character development.
As stated above, the location is loud and violent in urban LA with camera shots of Verona Beach and flashing words from the prologue appearing as newspaper headings or large white writing. The camera doesn’t focus on any particular thing straight away and then suddenly pans to a contrast, focusing on a yellow car with three people in it from the Montague family dressed in Hawaiian shirts. They do not appear serious and pull into a petrol station, followed shortly by the arrival of the Capulets. The camera zooms in onto the number plate of the Capulets, with close ups of all the family members. The use of intra-genre references is heightened as Tybalt is introduced to the sound of a cat, mirroring his calculating calm suppression of violence. He sneers when he speaks and uses the gun as a sword. The ricocheting sounds of shooting and feet culminates in the petrol station catching fire. The use of sound is further heightened as we hear the wind and screeching of cars leaving the petrol station, buttressed by the dramatically loud music.
The petrol station scene sets the tone for the rest of the film. Moreover the use of fire is utilised by Luhrmann as a consistent theme throughout the film, from the petrol fire scene to the use of fire works and music in act 1 of the film. This not only symbolises the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet’s story and the fragility of their passion, it further heightens the futile and explosive nature of the feud between their families, which causes their ultimate downfall.
In this way, the juxtaposition of the colours and characterisation immediately subverts the genre. Baz Luhrmann’s subversion of the genre and conventional narrative of this well known story further links into the changes in film making in the 1990s towards the “Indiewood effect” (Tzioumakis, 2006). Sconce further argues that the range of these films further reflected a shift in film making and represented an interesting shift from the dominant tendencies of a conservative mass media format to the consideration of lateral socio-political issues within the culture (Sconce, 2002).
Indeed, from one aspect the subversion of the neo-conservative formula, characterisation and narrative in independent cinema arguably symbolises cultural, generational and societal change particularly in context of the success of such films, through the representation of multi-ethnic subject matters and disenfranchised perspectives (Bordwell, 2006). This is clearly evident in Luhrmann’s interpretation of Romeo and Juliet into a multicultural urban setting. Moreover, in the petrol station scene when the young boy has the gun pointed at him, the juxtaposition of youth with the nature of the threat is highlighted through the extreme close up on his face depicting fear.
Moreover, this proliferation of independent films arguably provides an insight into social problems and more personal issue within the dominant culture by dramatising situations that bear upon various ambits of a psychosocial experience and encounters with modern life (King, 2005). Indeed, it is submitted that a distinctive pleasure of the independent film is the ability to address such diverse subject matters reflecting the cultural diversity of America often ignored in mainstream cinema (King 2005).
Again, it is argued that the rich and often novel narrative trends of independent films have permeated mainstream cinema with the proliferation of complex narrative structures (Holmlund & Wyatt, 2004). This has further led to novel forms of cinematic storytelling, such as the visual technique as evidenced in the multi-racial cast of the Luhrmann Romeo and Juliet.
Moreover, Luhrmann adopts a complex narrative of an experimental nature within the formal complexity of the film. He further shifts the dynamic of the cinematic format, with the underlying thread of characterisation. Directly tied to this is the complex plot structure. This is not only further engaging than the mainstream aesthetically, but the complex narrative structures incorporating wider socio-political and cultural issues further provide an interesting alternative to the mainstream format (Levy, 1999).
Moreover, the Luhrmann version unfolds the drama with forking narratives amongst characters from different backgrounds. Indeed, in choosing a contemporary setting Baz Luhrmann is able to have a multicultural cast to reflect the modern day gang conflicts of Los Angeles, which thereby appeals to a larger audience.
Additionally, John Frow posited that “texts are not structures of presence but traces and tracings of otherness. They are shaped by the repetition and the transformation of other textual structures (Frow, 1990.p.46). To this end, the subversion of Shakespeare genre in Luhrmann’s version of Romeo and Juliet clearly adopts the “traces of otherness” as extrapolated by Frow. Whilst taking such an unconventional approach however, Luhrmann retains the original language, thereby maintaining the intensity of the original. He frequently uses jump cuts throughout the film, quickening the intensity and slowing down as the action dissipates. To this end, it reflects the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare’s linguistic technique. This is further mirrored by Luhrmann effectively speeding up the film to dramatise certain scenes.
The literal speed of the action sequences further mirror the classic Hong Kong film set sequences, thereby creating an aesthetic chaos, which in turn reflects the textured subject matter of the film. To this end Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet subverts and provides snatched, discursive pieces, almost photographic, which forces the audience to participate to a greater degree than the archetypal Shakespearian experience. The audience knows the story, yet Luhrmann’s unconventional depiction immediately engages the audience. To the new audience, this narrative technique forces the audience to pose questions, which is imperative in successful storytelling.
In contrast to the Montagues, Luhrmann characterises the Captulets through Mafia stereotypes in black suits, tie and a white shirt. As such, the contrast in colours marks out the gang type insignia colours of both warring families. Furthermore, through the use of jump cuts and chaotic filming sequences in the beginning of the film, along with the use of symbolism, Luhrmann creates further questions and intrigue by opening various possibilities, particularly to those new to Shakespeare.
One possibility is that broken ring image depicts a love story to be developed and alternatively, location symbolises the shrouded, mysterious and dangerous world of the story the audience is about to enter. This is further underlined by the film’s soundtrack, which is utilised by Luhrmann to create the atmosphere, which further involves and immerses the audience in the film. Luhrmann’s use of music additionally shapes characterisation. It is loud and perpetuates the violent undertones of the film. The prologue is accompanied by a full orchestra and opera choir, heightening the persistent them of violence in the film. The use of hip hop, heightens the sense of chaos and fear, thereby underlining imminent danger and violence.
This is also made interesting by the way the violence of the music contrasts with the Shakespearian use of language, which heightens tension and plot development.
Moreover, the use of music in the film serves a dual purpose of weaving itself into the film to support the inherent complexity in the dialogue. In this way it serves as another medium to tell the story. The atmosphere is also heightened by type of shots used by Luhrmann, displaying an air of mystery.
For example, Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juiliet utilises many cutaway shots and switches between the narratives to involve the audience directly in character development. There are still character eye view shots but they are now filmed in such a way that it genuinely appears as if the character is carrying out an action particularly in the fight scenes between Mercutio and Tybalt where Mercutio tells Romeo that if he will not fight Tybalt, Mercutio will. Moreover, the use of screen shoots and camera angles create effects. For example, the long shots used at the scene of Mercutio’s death when he curses the Montagues and Capulets by asserting “A plague o’ both your houses….. ask me for tomorrow, and you shall find a grave man”.
The efficacy in engaging the audience is further heightened by the constant twists and surprises in the film in a story we already know. Moreover, a key element in effective cinematic storytelling is withholding and the time scrambling technique. For example, the scene at Verona Beach where Tybalt challenges Mercutio to a one-bullet “turn and draw” gunfight filmed using a classic Hong Kong action movie method of cinema characterised by action speeding up sequences and close-up shots, followed by close ups.
Moreover, further inter-generic film references are created when Tybalt extinguishes his cigarette with the heel of his cowboy boot behind a soundtrack characteristic of a confrontation from a classic Western. In using familiarity in this way, Luhrmann again engages the audience. This is heightened by the continued use of music followed by the use of pauses to introduce each character. .
The consistency of stereotype subversion is emphasised through the portrayal of the news reader, which to a degree arguably signifies an attempt by Luhrmann to introduce to the audience to the clashing of genres and reject dominant stereotypes in films such as the use of a black and female news reader.
This is further reflected throughout the film with Luhrmann’s use of black police authority figures in Verona beach. It is poignant that the timing of the film in 1996 with the recent history of the LA riots and Rodney King scandal is knocked on the head by the casting of black police officers. Indeed the traditional “hero” Mercutio is played by black actor Harold Perrineau. To this end, Luhrmann is consistent in subverting character stereotypes through race and class symbolic stereotypes. The interaction of the characters presents a familiar scenario of a class and race struggle, which is further subverted into a story of mutual understanding.
Moreover, following the news reporter, the audience is presented with a view of the plot through the muddle of articles with headlines from the original text. The character and narrative subversions therefore provide more contradictory traits or a more complex combination of traits, which frustrates stereotypes, thereby engaging the audience into the plot and story, which mirrors the complexity of Shakespearian characterisation and complex narratives. Whilst frustrating such formats, Luhrmann’s interpretation adds to audience interest.
Also, in setting in contemporary era, Luhrmann is able to introduce drugs and contemporarily relevant social issues, where Romeo takes an ecstasy tablet before the party upon pressure by Mercutio. Directly correlated to use of drugs, is the underlying violence permeating the film through the action, colours and soundtrack. In the Luhrmannn film, Tybalt crushes the cigarette with his heel, arguably symbolising suppressed violence.
Additionally, prior to the fight breaking out with Mercutio, Tybalt points the gun at a child, telling the audience that the families are only worried about themselves, which is thought provoking in mirroring the predicament of families and children trapped in gang warfare. Therefore, the confrontational Western association, is used as an effective characterisation technique.
In conclusion, Lurhmann’s Romeo and Juliet is not only an aesthetically unconventional take on a classic story, in subverting the genre through characterisation, bold casting choices and the complex narrative; Luhrmann eschews the archetypal Hollywood paradigm to a degree and through the contemporary setting explores wider sensitive socio-economic issues such as drugs, race and violence. This is not only effective in bringing Shakespeare to a wider audience, it further highlights the relevance of the story in the contemporary cinema framework.
David Bordwell, “Subjective Stories and Network Narratives”, in The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies, University of California Press, 2006
John Frow, “Intertextuality and Ontology” From Michael Worton and Judith Still (eds) Intertextuality: Theories and Practises. Manchester University Press 1990.
Chris Holmlund, “Introduction: From the Margins to Mainstream”, in Chris Holmlund and Justin Wyatt (eds), Contemporary American Independent Film: From the Margins to the Mainstream, Routledge 2004.
Geoff King, American Independent Cinema, I.B. Taurus, 2005, “Introduction: How Independent?”
Emmanuel Levy, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film, New York University Press, 1999
Jeffrey Sconce, “Irony, nihilism and the new American “smart” film”, Screen, 43, 4 Winter 2002.
Yannis Tzioumakis, American Independent Cinema: An Introduction, Edinburgh University Press, 2006.
Romeo & Juliet (1968). Franco Zefirelli
Romeo & Juliet (1996). Baz Luhrmann