Romeo and Juliet, a classic love story, was written by William Shakespeare in the 17th century. The play is about a fatal romance between Romeo and Juliet and how they sacrifice their lives for each other. Australian director, Baz Luhrmann, has taken this play and modernised it. He uses a variety of techniques to retain the spirit of Shakespearean theatre in his interpretation of Romeo and Juliet. By using modern concepts and cinematic techniques, he not only relates to the modern audience but keeps Shakespearian theatre alive in the film.
In the film, Luhrmann has retained the language from the original play, iambic pentameter and all. By keeping the dialogue as “swords” and not changing it to “guns” illustrates that the original script was not adjusted to fit the modern setting. It is not entirely word-for-word as it was altered to fit the two hours running time of the film. By placing the original dialogue in a contemporary setting, he has not only modernised it but kept the feeling of theatre in the Elizabethan times. Luhrmann has also used the contemporary setting to help his audience understand Shakespeare’s language. For instance, when the first line of the prologue “Two households both alike in dignity” is spoken, an image of the Capulet and Montague corporations is shown. Another example of this is when Friar Lawrence is seen holding a herb explaining it’s risks and uses to a couple of children. This provides an audience for what would otherwise be a soliloquy. The language used in the film has a big impact on the ambience, making it feel more traditional. Although it is set in a modern Verona Beach, the language makes it not only Luhrmann’s work but Shakespeare’s own.
In the Elizabethan Era, in which Shakespeare lived and wrote, religion played a major role in society. Throughout this period, the Catholic Church prevailed in all of Europe and took the role of government by imposing laws and taxes. Baz Luhrmann illustrates the presence of religion by showing various imposing religious statues of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Luhrmann’s film is full of recurring religious symbolism. The opening scene shows a sequence of videos, all focused on the large statue of Jesus Christ situated in the section between the Capulet and Montague corporations. Throughout the play this particular statue is seen numerous times, becoming a motif of the film. During the beginning scene at the gas station, crucifixes and other religious symbols are seen on the characters’ attire and weaponry. The room in which both Romeo and Juliet take their lives is brimming with crosses and statues of the Virgin Mary and before Romeo kills himself, he places a ring covered in crosses on Juliet’s finger. Also at the Capulets masquerade party, Juliet was seen wearing an angel costume and Tybalt a devil. This outlines the difference between the cousins whilst also referencing religion.
Members of the Catholic Church use the term ‘stigmata’ to define injuries or sensations of pain in locations of the body that coincide with the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ. Luhrmann has incorporated this into his interpretation of Romeo and Juliet by displaying characters with lines of blood on their faces. We can infer this represents stigmata as one of the characters dies at the time the lines are shown on his face. As he dies he falls into the shape of the Christian cross under a colossal statue of Jesus Christ. The stigmata lines are shown on Tybalt and Romeo both in the scene Tybalt is slain. Religion was a significant element of society in Shakespeare’s England. By incorporating stigmata into his interpretation, he is including a fundamental component of society in Elizabethan England. In Shakespeare’s play, the characters are passionate about there religion so this technique turns a major aspect of the play into modern reality.
Back in Shakespeare’s day, females were not permitted to act, resulting in males performing the roles of females. Although Luhrmann’s film displays the stereotypes of men and women’s statuses and roles in society, he questions the controversy of these concepts. In Elizabethan England, women were subservient and held a passive role in society. They were inferior to males and were expected to take fulfil the role of housewife. Shakespeare refers to this in his play multiple times. In the first scene of the original play, Sampson says “And therefore women, being the weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall; therefore I will push Montague’s men from the wall, and thrust his maids to the wall”. This is a strong example implying the thinking of men in Shakespeare’s time in which women were only for the pleasure of the male gender. Baz Luhrmann has taken these ideas into account and relayed them to the audience in numerous ways, one of which was having Mercutio dressed as a woman at the Capulet’s masquerade costume party. Mercutio is portrayed as an outrageous character. He’s constantly fighting and he delivers chaotic speeches that Luhrmann conveys as hallucinogenic. He is the perfect character to have cross-dressed. Luhrmann also features another cross-dressed male performing in the street while the passers-by watch. The director has added a more sexualised aspect into his film. When Juliet says the famous lines “What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot, nor arm nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man”, she looks up and smiles. This is an aspect of Elizabethan society that Luhrmann has really brought out in the film. Religion was important in the lives of people in the Elizabethan era, so they stuck closely to the rules. Back then you could not have an intimate relationship with a person if you were not married, so this gesture brings out what Juliet was thinking and hoping for.
Baz Luhrmann hooks the audience in by using cinematic techniques such as rapidly moving cameras, low angle shots, slow motion videos and close-up shots to create the feeling of suspense throughout the movie. At the critical time of Mercutio’s death, Luhrmann has the camera moving swiftly between the two opponents, creating a blurred effect. This builds up tension whilst also imitating the feeling of the fight. As Tybalt stabs Mercutio with a shard of glass, the video footage becomes slow motion, emphasizing the significance of the scene. The cameras in the following scenes are shot from a low angle looking up at Mercutio as he yells out his curse, “a plague on both your houses”. At this point, Mercutio dies and the angles of the camera change to look down on the men standing around Mercutio’s dead body, almost like they are being watched by a higher power. This is a reference to one of the main themes of the play, fate. Luhrmann also references religion through camera angles. After Romeo slays Tybalt, he looks up at the statue of Jesus and yells up at it, “I am fortunes fool”. The camera then angles down over the statue to look down on Romeo. Luhrmann’s use of camera angles builds up the tension, emphasises the significance of scenes, and references both religion and fate. This technique effectively draws the audience in.
Baz Luhrmann has utilized the prologue, which is a crucial component of Shakespeare’s original play. By using a series of videos during the prologue, he has helped the audience understand Shakespeare’s old English. For instance, the narrator speaks the line “from ancient grudge breaks to new mutiny”, and fighting scenes are shown to clarify the meaning of the line. Luhrmann also uses newspaper headlines titled Montagues vs Capulets, implying a dispute between the families. The visually enthralling prologue and special effects bring the audience a better understanding of the meaning that lies behind.
The concept of ‘love at first sight’ may be difficult for the modern audience to relate to. It is unrealistic that the protagonists could fall in love when they had only known each other for a short period of time. Luhrmann portrays Romeo as a male that is desperate for love and Juliet as a naive, innocent girl willing to fall in love with someone she has only just met. When Romeo is first introduced to the audience, he is strolling aimlessly at Sycamore Grove smoking a cigarette, implying his feelings of depression. Soon after, Juliet is mentioned in Paris’ marriage proposal. Juliet’s father speaks of her as a stranger to the world, suggesting she is still young, naive and easily allured. In the following scenes, closeup videos are shown of Juliet’s face, which has no obvious makeup applied. This shows the audience another aspect of he innocence. ‘Love at first sight’ is one of the most unrealistic aspects of William Shakespeare’s play, but by using modern media techniques, Lurhmann has made love at first sight as believable as possible.
Therefore, Baz Luhmann has used techniques that have effectively captured the spirit of Shakespearian theatre in the film. He does this by using cinematic techniques such as camera angles, religious symbolism and stigmata. By using these effective techniques he helps the audience understand Shakespeares old English, as he has kept the dialogue from the original play. He has also lead the audience to believe in miraculous ‘love at first sight’.