Although Baz Luhrmann’s audacious take on Shakespeare’s classic love story has been generally lauded by critics and cinema-goers alike, the film’s dazzling visual aesthetic combined with its nineties psychedelic soundtrack has been much maligned by those who see the finished product as nothing more than a self-conscious, obnoxious, and hyperactive mess. Critics, who include the legendary Roger Ebert, turn instead to Zefferelli’s 1967 version as the archetype for Shakespearean film adaptation.
In truth, Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet – dated, sanitised and awash with tights and doublets – doesn’t come remotely close to capturing the spirit of original Shakespearean performance where the plays were executed at frenetic speed with modernday settings and costumes. Luhrmann’s sun-bleached Verona Beach backdrop, fireworks glittering in the portentous air, feels so much more alive and so much more visceral, whilst his unrelenting, enthralling cinematographic flourishes only serve to bring into starker contrast moments of kinetic respite.
In their first meeting, Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) looks upon Juliet (Claire Danes), her minimalistic angel-winged white ensemble heralding an innocence soon to be lost, and all the glitz which the film throws up becomes mere filler in the face of their profound and painful love, “Did my heart love ‘til now? Forswear its sight. For I never saw true beauty ‘til this night.” Each of their trysts is ephemeral, always curtailed, but for in the final scene when they lie together upon a funeral dais lit by a thousand lambent candles. We feel relieved that they are finally never to be separated; that Baz Luhrmann evokes this feeling shows that he has succeeded.