In 1996, Australian director Baz Luhrmann released his take on the immortal tale of star crossed lovers titled William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. The movie was an immediate hit but was debated amongst critics as to its merits. The movie is now finally available on Blu-ray with the transfer overseen frame by frame by Luhrman himself and the results are striking indeed.
It is easy to understand why some people who are blind purists dislike this version of Shakespeare’s tale of lovers from warring families. The setting is a fictional Verona Beach in the 1990’s with the feuding Capulet and Montague families represented by gangster style land barons. The characters are over the top, the environments are flashy and almost otherworldly but the style is infectious and clashes in a wonderful way with the play’s original Elizabethan language. The dialogue is nearly 500 years old yet so classic and well represented by the striking visuals that you cannot fail to understand its meaning.
The film opens with a standoff between the flamboyant and slightly bumbling Montague boys and the Cuban-American Capulets. The stage is immediately set as to what type of film this will be with bright colors, over the top exaggerated actions and a rock soundtrack. The scene is both striking and jarring as the actors speak the traditional (albeit edited) prose from the classic play. The standout in the initial act is Tybalt played by John Leguizamo. His character has some of the best costumes I have seen on film and is played with an intensity that rivals any character in the film.
This early scene shows us the depths of the rivalry between the families. There are attempts to follow the rules and not engage in active violence, but in the end the hatreds are too deep and the families clash. We are not yet introduced to the titular children of the Montagues and Capulets but know that the families are viscously at odds. Romeo, played by Leonardo DiCaprio just prior to his landmark role in Titanic, is introduced as he is recovering from a breakup and he is morose and distant. His best friend Mercutio (Harold Perrineau) convinces him to crash the hated Capulets costume party and gives him a tab of ecstasy to help him on his way.
At the Capulet mansion we are finally introduced to Juliet played by Claire Danes. She is on the cusp of being introduced to (and betrothed) to Paris (Paul Rudd) and is melancholy at the aspect. Romeo enters the party and meets Juliet as he is entranced by her instantly. They strike an instant spark and kisses are exchanged as they discover their growing feelings. One of the most effective scenes in the film is Luhrman’s take on the balcony scene. Romeo sneaks in and meets Juliet in her garden; they fall into her pool and exchange their feelings of love and a vow to marry.
The story continues in the classic manner. Romeo and Juliet secretly marry but the conflict between the families continues to simmer. Tybalt carries a deep hatred for Romeo and challenges him, Romeo refuse to fight knowing they are now connected by marriage but unable to reveal that fact yet. Luhrmann’s vision of Romeo + Juliet replaces the swords with gunplay but etches the guns with names like ‘Dagger’ and ‘Sword’ to add meaning to the weapons. The scenes where showdowns occur are striking and effective with the combatants circling each other as in spaghetti westerns of old. This fight ends in tragedy with Mercutio coming to Romeo’s aid and dying from his wounds as he battled Tybalt.
Romeo exacts revenge on Tybalt in a blind fury with an incredibly powerful rain soaked scene showcasing once again Leguizamo’s intensity in the role. Romeo has to run and Juliet is forced into a position to marry Paris. This leads to the tragic scenario of her faking her death, Romeo discovering the act and killing himself believing her dead, Juliet then follows him out of the pain of her loss.
The whole of the film is presented in such a blistering pace with quick cuts, bright vivid imagery and effective acting that the movie makes itself a modern telling of the classic tale. The unique look and classic dialogue resonate well with Luhrmann’s directing style making this one of my favorite versions of the play on film.
The back of William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet box proudly states that Baz Luhrmann oversaw the transfer frame by frame from the film’s original negatives and it shows. Present in a 1080p/AVC-encoded format this film is truly beautiful to behold. The opening scenes alone were enough to sell me on the quality of this exceptional transfer. The bright yellow of the Montagues car, the detailed textures on Tybalts vest and the distinguishable features and flaws on the characters faces are presented brilliantly. I can easily say that this is one of the better Blu-ray transfers from a 1990s film.
I would bet DNR was not used at all and the grain is all natural and effective. Luhrmann’s alternating wide and close shots could have been a disaster if the transfer was weak, but they look striking and effective with blacks and grays represented as well as the many colors present scene by scene. The look of the film was as important as the acting and sound and this transfer brings that look to high definition in a wonderful way.
Dialogue is easily separated from the music and effects and channelized nearly perfectly. Ambient sound is abundant and effective in immersing you into the world of these warring families. There is also effective use of the subwoofer giving key moments the deep sounds that push along the feel of the scene. The music in the movie is top notch and thanks to the great mix, a joy to listen to. This is an excellent audio transfer that brings much to the overall experience.
Along with the carefully handled transfer this Blu-ray comes with a number of quality supplements. The extras in this release, while not groundbreaking, are generally very good and well worth digging into.
“Shaking Up Shakespeare” Picture-in-Picture Commentary – Director Baz Luhrmann, production designer Catherine Martin, director of photography Donald M. McAlpine, and co-writer Craig Pearce
This is one of the better commentary tracks I have listened to in a long while. The varied group of passionate creators digs into nearly every aspect of the film and break down the decisions made and effectiveness of the scenes. The commentary can be solely listened to or viewed as a picture in pcture format with artwork, storyboards and behind the scenes footage appearing during the filming. I have not had as enjoyable a second viewing of a film as this in a long while, a great supplement.
A lengthy and excellent documentary is the highlight of this section in the extra features. The documentary is nearly an hour long and looks at the creation of the films excellent soundtrack. There are also additional featurettes such as “Everybody’s Free: The Journey of the Song“ – A look at the young boy who sings in the choir scenes, “The London Music Mix” – Examining the sound design and process and “Temp Music: The Journey of the Song“ – Baz Luhrmann describes how he decided which songs to use.
From the Bazmark Vault
A number of behind the scenes footage presented in faux 1080p. They are framed in an ornate border but use SD footage. The scenes are “First Kiss,” “Beach Scene,” “Uncut Rehearsal,” and “Outside the Church.” I am a big fan of scenes like this as it shows the lead up and preparation to important moments in the movie.
As they sound these clips look at portions of Baz Luhrmanns process as he creates the film. “Why Shakespeare?” and “Pitching Shakespeare” are interesting as they show his unique challenge in pitching his ideas to a modern studio. The other scenes are looks at Luhrmann directing some key moments in “Directing the Gas Station,” “Directing the Pool Scene,” and Tybalt’s Execution.
A short feature this time looking at the Director of Photography and his process as he explores some of the more striking scenes. The scenes are “A Hole in the Wall,” “The Fish Tank Scene,” “Filming the Lift Scene,” “One Light and Filming the Church.”
Because every movie needs these marketing type extras (sarcasm) we have some interviews with Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, John Leguizamo, Production Designer Catherine Martin, Co-Writer Craig Pearce, Editor Jill Bilcock, Choreographer John O’Connell, and Costume Designer Kym Barrett.
The Final Word
As mentioned there are people who love this film and people who think Baz Luhrmann ruined this classic tale. I am in the camp that loves this original and effective take on one of the best love stories of all time. The acting, set pieces, themes, setting and classic dialogue are perfectly enhanced by the excellent audio and video transfers. William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet is a great movie in a fantastic Blu-ray release and deserves to be in your collection.