[box cover]

William Shakespeare's
Romeo + Juliet: Special Edition

20th Century Fox Home Video

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes

Written by Craig Pearce and Baz Luhrmann
Directed by Baz Luhrmann

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

"Now, in a city of 40,000 people — that's London — (Shakespeare) had to get an audience of 4,000 mostly drunk, yelling, screaming ticket buyers into the theater every day. So Shakespeare firstly had to tell his story in such an aggressive, sexy, noisy, rambunctious way thet he could shut them up, and at the same time touch every person from every kind of background."

— Baz Luhrmann

For the second in his so-called "red curtain films," director Baz Luhrmann decided to splash a little color and light all over the Bard, bringing us William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996), a fast-paced, candy-colored, Gen-X version of the classic tragedy. Luhrmann's theory was thus: Previous film versions of Shakespeare's plays had veered far afield of the plays' bawdy, earthy origins. He wanted to transport the story — original language and all — to a modern setting, and try to capture on-screen the sort of wild-ass, play-to-the-cheap-seats joyride that was offered at the Globe Theater in the good ol' days. It's a noble experiment, but it just doesn't happen.

The story remains the same — Montague meets girl, girl turns out to be a Capulet, violence between families leads to vengeance, and the kids die. But in Luhrmann's version, "fair Verona" is Verona Beach, Fla., and instead of swords, the warring clans carry guns. There's a whole lot of gorgeous, complicated art direction all over the place, with witty billboards advertising Prospero scotch and Thunder bullets (the ad line reads: "Shoot forth thunder"), clever camera work and beautiful sets ... but the whole thing feels hollow, like a beautifully wrapped Christmas present that turns out to be a four-pack of tube socks.

To his credit, Luhrmann understands his Shakespeare. His script (co-written with his usual collaborator Craig Pearce) hits all the of the play's high points and low points, he gets all the jokes, lays the tragedy on with a heavy hand, and offers some dandy sword — I mean, gun — fights. But his visual gimmicks (which earned the film an Oscar nomination for art direction) overshadow the story, and most of the actors he's cast are way out of their depth. Claire Danes was just 17 when she played Juliet here, and she's clearly uncomfortable with the language, playing her part as if she's starring in an exceptionally laid-back high school play. Leonardo DiCaprio is no slouch as an actor, but he has no business doing Shakespeare; he's awkward as hell, obviously working at trying to sound natural (he doesn't). And try as Baz might to create the wonder of first love through lights, music, snappy editing and clever direction, DiCaprio and Danes have absolutely no chemistry together. The couple at the center of the film are, to be blunt, awful in their parts.

A handful of actors in Romeo + Juliet seem at home with Bard-speak, most notably Pete Postlethwaite in his few, shining scenes as Father Laurence. Harold Perrineau brings a lot of gender-bending excitement — and an interesting twist to his friendship with Romeo — to his turn as the doomed Mercutio. And some characters seem curiously over-cast for the small amount of screen time they have, like Brian Dennehy as the head of the Montague clan, Paul Rudd as "Dave" Paris, and M. Emmett Walsh as the apothecary. And Paul Sorvino as Papa Capulet with a bad Italian accent ... the less said about him, the better. But there's a real spark of brilliance in John Leguizamo as Tybalt; he's evil, graceful, deadly and he actually masters iambic pentameter.

Luhrmann is an interesting director to watch, if only for the chances he takes and the grand scale at which he experiments. His gambles aren't always successful — just ask all the people who loathed Moulin Rouge. The fact that his loud, exuberant and gaudy Romeo + Juliet is something of a mess makes it no less interesting an achievement: It's an ambitious mess, and it'll be interesting to see what he comes up with next.

*          *          *

Once again, Luhrmann has taken the reins and created a jam-packed DVD for Fox's second release of Romeo + Juliet. The quality of the anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) is stunning, with rich, room-filling Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. As with Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge, he sat down with his crew and recorded a chummy, chatty and entertaining commentary track. This time, the gang includes his wife/production designer Catherine Martin, screenwriter Pearce, and director of photography Don McAlpine.

Supplements on this Special Edition include a "Director's Gallery" offering six sub-menus exploring what inspired the project, how Luhrmann pitched the film to the studio, media reaction to the film and behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage of key scenes; a "Cinematographer's Gallery," detailing just how they got some of the more imaginative shots; a "Design Gallery," looking at storyboards, designs for guns and cars, set design, fashion design and all those clever billboards, cigarette labels, magazine covers, etc.; an "Interview Gallery," with short sound bites from Pearce, editor Jill Bilcock, choreographer John O'Connell, costume designer Kim Barrett, and actors DiCaprio, Danes and Leguizamo; music videos for "Young Hearts Run Free" by Kym Mazelle and "Kissing You" by Des'ree; and "Marketing B+J," offering TV spots, the theatrical trailer and poster designs. And a DVD-ROM feature (PC only) allows the viewer to compare, scene-by-scene, the screenplay to Shakespeare's text.

— Dawn Taylor

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