Sound + fury

Romeo + Juliet Baz Luhrmann (12)
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The Independent Culture
Shakespeare is having rather a good year. First there was Looking for Richard, Al Pacino's combination of manifesto and master class, and then the huge homage of Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet. These films, though, were only incidentally cinematic, Pacino's being like a sophisticated video diary of an imaginary production and Branagh's, for all its spectacle, resembling an ideal performance of the play as he interprets it. Branagh's camera stood in more or less adequately for the audience - it didn't have a personality of its own.

Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet is a very different experience, being strongly and even rampantly cinematic. Shakespeare's words aren't treated with the fetishising respect that we normally expect and demand, but are left to fend for themselves, trusted to survive intense competition from a fearlessly frenzied visual style and a soundtrack pumped full of beats. Luhrmann and his team (production designer Catherine Martin, director of photography Donald McAlpine and costume designer Kym Barrett) have created not Shakespeare's Verona, whatever that was, but "Verona Beach", a violent city with elements of Miami and Mexico, where the young Capulets and Montagues refer to their "swords" but use guns. In a typically witty touch, the guns - customised weapons both stark and lush, their colours matt silver and grey, their handles decorated with religious imagery - bear inscriptions such as "Sword 9mm"; sword or else rapier or dagger .

Luhrmann introduces the principals with freeze frames and captions, as if this were a gangland mini series. He uses every exaggerated Tarantino device for the first confrontation between the gangs - in a petrol station, naturally - and goes to town with slow motion and fast motion. The Capulet party at which Romeo meets Juliet is a setpiece that Fellini would envy (Romeo has taken a little pill beforehand, which may help), while the chapel where the story ends is a vast space crammed with candles, rose petals in the aisle and floral crosses outlined in blue neon.

The brashness of television is less threatening to Luhrmann's ambitions (his first film Strictly Ballroom wasn't exactly short on brashness itself) than the stilted authority of theatre. He starts the movie with a shot of a television broadcasting static, its screen insignificant in the largeness of the film's anamorphic format. Then the static is replaced by a news anchor woman delivering the Prologue. Behind her is a graphic of a broken ring and the caption Star-cross'd lovers.

Shakespeare's language survives in Romeo + Juliet - or to give it its full title, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet - as soundbite, in familiar phrases at famous moments, and in the occasional setpiece speech. Time and ubiquity have already turned Shakespearean speech into half-remembered nuggets, but there's an invigorating shot in seeing a phrase such as A rash fierce blaze of riot as a newspaper headline - to be reminded that the Bard's way with words was something like The Sun's. Luhrmann's sweetest business in this line is when father Lawrence is sending the vital letter to Romeo by Post-Haste despatch, and we see a pen hovering over a form "A local habitation and a name". With his cheeky updating, the director has dissolved a long-standing problem. In the theatre, audiences find it contrived that a letter should go astray in the Renaissance, but introduce a courier firm and the difficulty disappears.

Pete Postlethwaite's Father Lawrence, putting on his cassock and surplice over a Hawaiian shirt, is one of two British character actors in the film, yet neither he nor Miriam Margolyes (as Juliet's Nurse) uses the domestic accent. The film-makers cite Anthony Burgess to support the idea that Shakespeare's own accent would lie somewhere between a Boston and a Dublin one, but the pedantic excuse isn't needed. Shakespeare can't be a playwright of universal genius and also a closed book except to one particular tradition of performance and understanding. Postlethwaite goes mid-Atlantic, while Margolyes gives a delicious Hispanic caricature. The scene of Juliet trying to get news from her Nurse is particularly well thought out, the Nurse not scatterbrained but exploiting her brief power, raiding the fridge and wanting a back rub before she will reveal anything.

Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Romeo, is by now almost a boy veteran of the movies, though his Juliet, Claire Danes, is best known from a television series (My So-Called Life). Casting these leads is never easy, since what is required is impulsive youth able to soliloquise about its choices. Luhrmann makes things easier for DiCaprio by showing Romeo as a little bit of an introspective show-off, who writes striking phrases in a notebook before trying them out on his friends. Danes has a more limited technique; her most beguiling trick is an awkward grin during a soliloquy as a double meaning or a memory strikes her. The director allows her once or twice to do a monologue in its cinematic equivalent, as a voice-over.

Perhaps it's the same tenderness towards the juveniles, and their fear of being left alone with Shakespeare's language, that makes Luhrmann and his co-writer Craig Pearce re-jig the death scene so that Juliet, reviving with a positively post-coital languor, sees Romeo take the fatal draught, is touching him even as he swallows, but can't prevent the suicide.

The lovers are linked with transparency and water, with whiteness, clarity and simplicity. We first see Juliet's face underwater, as she prepares for her parents' party, and the two catch sight of each other through a fish tank. Romeo is associated with a swimming pool, Juliet with her all-white bathroom. Their first kiss is in the lift at the party, a glowing white space of privacy in the hubbub. Their clothes throughout are the simplest and soberest that we see. The risk the film runs is that young love, first love, true love, is simply outgunned and outdazzled by the seductive violent world brought to life around it, made to seem insipid, like a smoochy ballad interrupting a chain of pounding songs on the dance floor

On release from tomorrow