Retro Review

The year was 1996. A large group of grade 10 students sat in an otherwise empty movie theatre. They were giddy, excited at being out of school in a cinema instead of a classroom. This was the reward given at the end of a couple of months reading Shakespeare.

All the thou-ing this, doth-ing that, and generally speaking in rhyme had confused them at first but some grew to understand the words, the scene they created, and the characters they developed. But some were still lost, only understanding the pure fundamentals of what they had read; there is a guy (or maybe 2) and there is a girl (or 3) and something happens and a there’s a sword fight (there was always a sword fight).

The last play they had read was the classic tale of star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, and finishing it had coincided with the release of the Baz Luhrmann directed motion picture, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (you wouldn’t want to confuse this with someone else’s Romeo and Juliet).

The young “men” of the group didn’t particularlly care to be watching this movie, it was chick stuff but they got to be out of school, hang out with girls in the dark, and they heard there were explosions and fights in this, just enough to keep them occupied.

The young “ladies” in attendence had a few different reasons for wanting to see the film.

  1. It was an epic story of love and who wouldn’t want to see that?
  2. Juliet was being played by Claire Danes. They had come to praise her for her role in a short lived show “My So-Called Life” as Angela Chase. A girl in high-school that immortalized everything they were, and brought their thoughts and emotions to the small screen.
  3. Leonardo DiCaprio. His boyish looks and charm had won their hearts.

The lights dimmed and the cacophony of sound and imagery began bring excitment and wonder to what had previously seemed so dull.

This memory came to me the other day as I watched William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet on television. Even though I own the DVD I had not seen it for a long time and there is just something about coming across a film on TV that makes it that much better.

It is not that I had forgotten how good that movie is it amazes me how well it has standed the test of time. The sets, costumes, acting it is all simply wonderful. Even though it was a modern retelling at the time there is nothing overly 90s about the film except maybe the cast. The costume and set director managed to find an aesthetic balance between that time and the Victorian period the material is taken from allowing the movie to seem classic not aged.

The screenplay writer had some necessary fun with the original; there are the swords that are now guns, horses are cars, and public disturbances include explosions. My favourite scene is their play on the famous “balcony scene”. It really isn’t a balcony scene at all and it come off splendidly more playful and youthful.

Leo DiCaprio as Romeo was nothing less than the perfect choice. You had to understand why someone would fall in love with him at first glance and that scene at the beginning of the movie where he is sitting upon a stage, the sun rising behind him, the wind tossing his hair as he spouts poetry to no one but himself. Then he looks up, his eyes wet, weary with tiredness and emotion and you swear he is looking at you makes many a girl swoon. But there is nothing effeminate or weak about the scene, his look there is a confidence, it is a look of someone who knows who they are and are comfortable with themselves. I know all guys reading this are rolling their eyes.

Then there is Claire Danes as Juliet. She is absolutely beautiful, the perfect embodiment of a youthful, smart, and confident young woman. But her beauty isn’t unobtainable, she is still the girl next door, there is nothing fake or forced looking about her. The scene at the costume party her simple white dress, flowing hair, and small feathered wings she was that angel.

The supporting cast was fantastic including seasoned actors like Pete Postlethwaite, Paul Sorvino, and Miriam Margolyes. What made it even better was some of the unexpected people like John Leguizamo, Jamie Kennedy, Harold Perrineau, and Dash Mihok who were a pleasant surprise in their roles. They conveyed the necessary emotion and motivation for the two main characters. And then there is Paul Rudd as Paris. When I read the play and saw the 1968 adaptation I felt nothing for the character and understood Juliet’s disinterest. But Rudd’s performance made me like the character and I actually felt bad for him.

And then there is the music/score a mix of classical music and modern dance songs. The deep intensity of the orchestral sound really added to the highs and lows of the story where the dance music added to the electric frenzy of the overall film.

Even though William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet doesn’t include all the dialogue (which many people complained about) it is a delight to watch. And if you have never watched it, shame on you. Even if you are not a fan of Shakespeare you will like this.


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