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Romeo and Juliet Do the New World

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 01, 1996

What would the Bard think of having Garbage on the soundtrack of his classic love story? While Shakespeare might well have applauded Aussie filmmaker Baz Luhrmann's souped-up version of "Romeo and Juliet," traditionalists are sure to despise the psychedelic tunes and the flashy sets of this audacious adaptation. Not to mention Mercutio as drag queen.

For all of its departures, Luhrmann's largely successful reinterpretation is far from irreverent. He takes liberties with the world, but never the words of this achingly beautiful love story. Though the updated version of the 400-year-old romance takes place in Florida's garishly futuristic Verona Beach, the star-crossed lovers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes) still pledge their troth in Elizabethan English, albeit with American accents.

Verona Beach, like those parallel universes Trekkies so often encounter, exists outside known time and space but recalls a post-apocalyptic Miami Beach. Along with vestiges of Cuban, Caribbean and antebellum influences, the city embraces boardwalk culture and the ruthless creed of the municipality's rival Mafia overlords.

As they do in "West Side Story," ethnic differences between the white Montagues and the Cuban Capulets underlie the mob families' ongoing feud. But the Capulet and Montague "boys" bear a closer kinship to the Crips and Bloods than the Sharks and Jets. Both crews now pack automatic pistols, their pearl handles emblazoned with images of Mary and other Catholic icons.

The feud erupts anew when a carload of Montagues take on the hot-blooded Tybalt Capulet (John Leguizamo) and his kinsmen at a gas station, which goes up in a spectacular conflagration. Although Luhrmann goes crazy with the camera work and sets a blistering tempo, the gang sequences don't really work absent the swordplay. Guns and roses aside, flowery speech and flaming pistols do not a happy marriage make.

Neither, sadly, do Romeo and Juliet, whose tender affair seems all the more fragile in contrast to the lavish chaos of Verona Beach. Danes and DiCaprio not only make a gorgeous couple, but both speak Shakespearean English as if it were their own. They seem more comfortable with the language, in fact, than with the overwhelming pangs of their first love.

Luhrmann, who pitted youthful brio against conventional wisdom in "Strictly Ballroom," clearly enjoys thumbing his nose at authority. Perhaps he's an eternal teenager, or merely a bit mad. In any case, his excesses only prove Shakespeare's profundity and the timelessness of his themes. Certainly, the work is hale, if not for all well met.

Luhrmann's "William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet" is the hippest of the four fall films drawn from the Bard's folio. It arrives between Al Pacino's "Looking for Richard" and Trevor Nunn's "Twelfth Night," with Kenneth Branagh's nearly-four-hour version of "Hamlet" bringing up the rear.

While there's some commercial risk in remaking these classics, Shakespeare does have an impressive track record. He's also the hottest dead writer to hit Hollywood since Jane Austen. Perhaps studio executives have discovered that "age can not wither nor custom stale his great variety."

William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet is rated PG-13 for violence and sensuality.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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