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Like every other thirteen-year-old girl in 1996, I was in looooove with Leonardo DiCaprio. He was just so gosh-darn cute, and he had two sweeping, tragic romances out one year after the other, and he had that lovely Italian name--how could we resist? Leo was my generation's Robert Pattinson, and I still have the scrapbook to prove it. The fact that he could actually, y'know, act, was beside the point.

It's hard for me to look at the Baz Luhrmann version of Romeo and Juliet without my nostalgia goggles on. I loved it then, I still love it now, and I honestly have no idea how much of that is my residual fangirl self and how much is my analytical reviewer self who thinks it's a genuinely good movie. So bear with me here--I'm biased, I know that, I can't help it.


What I do know is there's a sizeable contingent of people who can't stand this movie, and I understand why. Usually their reasons come down to one of two things: either the decision to modernize the setting but keep the original text, or Luhrmann's flashy direction. Both are impossible to escape and hit the viewer hard from the get-go. So if either of those things bug you, it's gonna be a hard movie to sit through. Personally, I've always had an affinity for the uncompromisingly weird, so it never bothered me. Plus, if you happened to be studying the play in school at the exact same time (which I was), the modern context made the language a little more accessible--not so daunting and archaic.

The resulting film is one of the stranger interpretations of the classic play out there, but one of the most faithful at the same time. That's pretty impressive if you think about it. Additionally, because it is such a faithful adaptation, it makes a perfect case study for the classic Elizabethan tragedy.

Let's talk about Tragedy.

When you watch a movie or read a book that's pitched as a "tragedy," it doesn't necessarily mean the ending is bad or that people die in the end. More often than not, that's exactly what happens, but that's not what makes it a tragedy in the classical sense. A "tragedy" is mode of storytelling with its own rules and expectations. Like romance, like comedy, there's a structure at work here that must be set up in an effective and believable way in order for the pay-off not to come across as cheap or manipulative. In romance, the pay-off is the lead couple getting a happily ever after. In comedy, the pay-off is the wacky hilarity that results from the culmination of a set of increasingly bizarre circumstances. (Keep in mind I'm thinking classically here, since this is an Elizabethan play we're talking about.) In tragedy, the pay-off is a direct inversion of the comedy structure--increasingly bizarre circumstances leading up to an inevitable conclusion.

Most of the time, the pay-off in a classically structured tragedy is set up one of two ways: Either the characters are victims of circumstances beyond their control; or one of the characters has a specific fatal flaw and it's that person who drives the plot. In the case of Romeo + Juliet, it's a little of both.

Claire Danes' Juliet is a victim of circumstance. Her father is violently abusive and controlling, her mother barely acknowledges her existence, and they're both trying to push her into an arranged marriage with this Paris guy who seems nice enough but who just doesn't do anything for her. Her only confidant is the nurse who lends a sympathetic ear, but since she's the hired help of the Capulet household, she can't really do much. There's a touch of rebelliousness to Danes' approach to the character--from that tiny smile on her face when Romeo grabs her hand mere inches away from an oblivious Paris at the masquerade, to her yanking him back inside that elevator when she hears her mother calling her name, you get the impression that she's attracted to Romeo not necessarily for any qualities he possesses, but because of what he represents: an escape from the life her parents have mapped out for her.

In the end, Juliet's suicide is the result of several failed attempts on her part to get away--first by marrying Romeo in secret, then by begging both parents to give her more time on the Paris thing only to have them effectively disown her, and finally by seeking out Father Lawrence for advice and coming up with the sleeping potion plan. I appreciate how, even when she sees herself considering suicide as an option, she keeps her head enough to go to a trusted adult for help before going through with it. The sleeping potion idea goes about as badly wrong as it could, but it's not her idea, and her conversation with Lord and Lady Capulet prior is a clear cry for help that goes ignored.

DiCaprio's Romeo, on the other hand, has the fatal flaw. And here I'll get into why the Rosaline subplot is so essential to this character's background, and why it creates such a hole in the story when it's left out: Romeo is ruled by his emotions, extremely selfish and stubborn, and woefully blind to the world around him. When he sees something he's personally deemed important, that thing is the only thing that matters, and even though he's surrounded by a network of caring, supportive friends and family trying to talk sense to him, it's clear early on that it's only a matter of time before he does something stupid that he won't be able to take back. Rosaline is the center of his universe until the second he spots Juliet, and then she becomes the center of his universe. He has a one-track mind and a very short attention span.

It goes beyond his romantic attachments, too: there's a scene towards the beginning of the second act, the morning after the masquerade, when Benvolio and Mercutio are speculating over where the crap Romeo's been all night. This is where we get the info of Tybalt's challenge in the form of a letter. Benvolio and Mercutio's working theory--since they don't know about Juliet yet--is that Romeo might've taken the challenge as a personal insult and tried to take on Tybalt by himself. That's just the sort of damn fool thing he'd do, and the fact that they consider it as an option makes Romeo's violent revenge spree later more understandable. It's also not surprising that his decision to kill himself happens only after he's banished to Mantua and therefore removed from that support network. Romeo is impulsive, and the beginning half the movie includes several moments of his friends and family trying to save him from himself.

This is what I love about DiCaprio's approach to Romeo, fangirl squee aside: he gets the character, and doesn't play him as sympathetically as you might expect if you go in with the idea that he's a romantic hero. This guy is anything but heroic, tilting towards his own downward spiral from the very beginning.

So, where does that put us with my theory of dueling protagonists? Whose story is this? A little close to call, but I think it's Romeo's. We meet him first, and his actions drive the plot forward. If he hadn't started hitting on Juliet at the masquerade, she might've been perfectly happy with Paris. If he hadn't gone into berserker mode at Mercutio's death, he might not have been banished and therefore separated from his friends. If he hadn't been so eager to jump to conclusions about Juliet's fate--like, for instance, going to Father Lawrence for a quick fact-check--he wouldn't have gone through the despair event horizon and killed himself.

That's a lot of "if" for a play that's set up to be tragic from the get go, but my point is this: Romeo was heading for some kind of disaster already. It just so happened that pulling Juliet into that disaster with him made the Capulets and Montagues rethink the grudge they've harbored towards each other all these years. Romeo's fatal flaw of self-centered impulsiveness is the inevitable aspect of this particular tragedy. Juliet was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As I said in my intro, there was a time when I loathed this play, especially Romeo's part in it--and this version is the reason why. Not to say that I don't like the way DiCaprio plays him, but because he plays him so well, which made it harder to overlook the unsavory parts of his personality. Yeah, this is not a good guy. This is a guy who will destroy your world if you let him get too close, and he won't even realize he's doing it.

Now, for the part folks tend to remember more fondly: Is it romantic? Oh lordy, yes. Mostly thanks to the pitch-perfect performances from some of the finest young actors in Hollywood at the time--DiCaprio already had the first of three Oscar noms behind him when he made this, and Danes had snagged her first Golden Globe--but a lot of it hinges on the masquerade scene, this moment when they first see each other. I love the way the whole sequence is staged, from the lighting to the camera work to the sound balance, but as previously stated your mileage may vary. What makes the scene work is where these two characters are in their respective worlds when their eyes meet through that fish tank. She's hiding from her mother on account of that arranged marriage she'd really rather not deal with right now; he's trying to sober up from a bad trip at this party he didn't really want to go in the first place. Both characters are seeking asylum from the direction their lives are going. That, more than the demands of the plot that they must find each other at some point, is what makes me buy it.

It's a flawed movie, to be sure, and definitely not for everyone. But for me? This is about as good as it gets.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Dec. 12th, 2013 04:53 am (UTC)
GREAT WRITE UP! I loves me some Shakespeare :)

Like you, I haven't seen this movie since it was first out on DVD. I wasn't a big DiCaprio fan but I was curious about what they did with the modernization. I remember really liked it a lot.

But you're right - people tend to associate this story with romance, calling it a great love story, but really that's an oversell. There are some very romantic scenes, and when the actors pull them off, your heart can skip a beat, but at it's core, it is a tragedy and Romeo brings it all crashing down. I think once you understand that, it can really create a love/hate relationship with the play itself (my mom loathes this play).

And, as usual, most people have this play ruined for them in high school. Listening to 14 year old kids stumble over the dialogue can really take all the sexiness out of it. I don't think I really *got* it until I saw "Shakespeare in Love" and later when I saw a professional production.

Maybe I rewatch is in order...
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )