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Looking Back: Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Written by Film

One would not expect criticism like “A monumental disaster”, “horrifying”, “unsettling”, “so obnoxiously brash and in-your-face that it just becomes tiresome” to be attributed to Shakespeare’s seminal tragedy Romeo and Juliet.

But in 1996, even revered reviewers like Ebert and major publications like the Washington Post were overwhelmed by the chaotic, glitter-bomb explosion that was Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.

“What if Romeo and Juliet, a familiar story to all, transcends the restriction of style in ways that Shakespeare’s stories of the monarchy could not?”

23 years after its release, it’s clear to see that this adaptation suffered at the hands of purists. But the film deserves its praise as a frenetic fireball of carnal desire and adolescent fervour. There should be no shame in the enjoyment of such a product of passion, a pure encapsulation of youth and a perfect homage to a legendary play. Many criticise the film as style over substance, but what happens when a film’s style is its substance? What if Romeo + Juliet, a familiar story to all, transcends the restriction of style in ways that Shakespeare’s stories of the monarchy could not?

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New life is breathed into a play written 400 years before Luhrmann’s adaptation, and even in the 21st century, this new life remains. As a collection of late-teens and twenty-somethings, the dramatic and tumultuous nature of the play is something inherently relatable – it’s highly doubtful that any of us are the children of mafia bosses, but the modern setting provides a platform for us to relate to otherwise untouchable characters.

“I propose that this should no longer be considered a guilty pleasure, and instead just a pleasure.”

I propose that this should no longer be considered a guilty pleasure, and instead just a pleasure. An underrated piece of cinema that has maintained over 20 years of ferocious energy, Romeo + Juliet is indubitably undeserving of its criticism and should be re-watched as often as possible. A tonic to the trend of dark and gritty adaptations and a ray of sunshine despite its tragic subject matter, an unflinching depiction of melodrama and emotion that is “tiresome” and “unsettling” purely because of its relatability.

Last modified: 22nd October 2019

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