Sunday, May 5, 2013

Shakespeare On Screen: Romeo + Juliet

Guys, I am just beyond excited for Baz Luhrmann's take on The Great Gatsby hitting theatres (in 3D?–oh, I mean, in 3D!!!!!!!! But still, a little bit of a question mark) this Friday! It even made my list of most anticipated films of the summer. So, in honor of Baz's latest, I'm taking a look back at his previous films all this week. That's right everyone. It's Baz Luhrmann week here at The Film's the Thing! Tonight is a look at his second film, the modern day retelling of Shakespeare's tale of star-crossed lovers played by Gatsby himself, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Homeland's Claire Danes (The world's best chin-quivering crier!) This is also the start of a monthly series I hope to do called Shakespeare on Screen. So, let's dive right in–literally–as we take a closer look at Baz's version of the most famous scene from one of Shakespeare's most produced works: The Balcony Pool Scene.

I have to admit, I was not the biggest fan of this movie when it was released back in 1996. I was a precocious teenager (some may say pretentious) when it came to theatre, film, and Shakespeare in general. Growing up in Omaha, my parents used to take us to see the free Shakespeare on the Green every summer. We were studying his work in high school, I felt like it was a subject that I was beginning to have some understanding of. And after seeing a production of Taming of the Shrew set in the Wild West, I had decided I was a purest in regard to the Bard's work and the context in which it was presented. The fact that Baz Luhrmann had set Romeo and Juliet in the present day, with guns and hawaiian shirts was too much for me. But, the thing that did me in at the time was that instead of Juliet wondering where for art her Romeo was from her balcony window, she was flailing a swimming pool! Blasphemous!

As the years have passed, I definitely become more lenient in my Shakespeare adaptions. After all, what would be the point of the same interpretation? The works of Shakespeare have endured for hundreds of years for a reason. They are still being performed because they still have something to say and each new generations finds a new way to present it. What Baz did with his take was to make it relevant to a younger audience that wouldn't be interested in Shakespeare otherwise. With his trademark quick cuts and CM's neon-tinged art direction, he made it seem fresh and new and not some museum piece that would put people to sleep.

But, getting back to the pool scene, it does still feel a little bit like a gimmick. So much about the way he changed the play to fit the world of his film–the prologue being read by a newscaster on the nightly news, the guns having the brand name Sword–works for me. But, putting the two of them in a pool feels like he was trying to do something different just for the sake of doing it. After all, balconies still exist in the modern world.

At the start of the scene, after Romeo has climbed the garden wall, he sees a silhouette at the window of a, yep, balcony. But instead of giving us the traditional setting, Baz winkingly plays with our expectations by making the silhouette at the balcony not belong to Juliet, but to her Nurse (played by British actress, Miriam Margolyes. I didn't even realize it was her until this recent viewing! I thought it was actually a Latina actress. Range!). This bit of comedy, while funny, doesn't set the right tone for the rest of the scene. It's a little like Baz is biting his thumb at us, saying I know what you want and you're not gonna get it.

The reason the balcony exists is to give a barrier between our two lovers otherwise they would just have at each other and there would be no tension, no drama, and nowhere for the story to go. On the commentary of the film, Baz said that the water in the pool, was supposed to create that barrier. But, there's little resistance in a pool and after he said that I noticed that the two made-out and clung to each other for an awfully long time. That water didn't seem to be bothering them at all. Also, how would a pool prevent them from having sex? If reality dating shows have taught us anything, it's that once two people get into a body of water, all beats are off!

Once they're in the pool, the sound of the water and the actors' breathlessness at trying to keep afloat hinders what should always be the essential of any Shakespeare production, regardless of the setting: the text. In casting two young Americans who had virtually no prior experience with Shakespeare, they already had their work cut out for them. But he seems to be doing them a disservice by putting extra obstacles in their way. Although both game, sometimes the text does get away from the actors and the words sound a little jarring coming from such flat, nasally voices. Danes fairs better than DiCaprio in this scene and I love the flirtatious way she delivers the line, "Nor any other part belonging to a man."
Of the few scenes that Romeo and Juliet actually share together, this is the only one in the film that relies heavily on the text. Most of the others are more visual and I find their initial meeting at the Ball to be more romantic then this scene. But the two have chemistry and their youthful energy makes up for a lot. And to an entire generation, the balcony scene will always be associated with the two floating about in a pool.

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