Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is a cinematic marvel, an intriguing combination of Shakespeare’s historic prose in modern settings. Filmed in cities in Mexico, it transforms Shakespeare’s traditional Verona into a hyper-religious community, awash with Catholic icons and massive statuary depicting Jesus Christ. It is a crumbling city, the result of violence and hatred, as if the very buildings are tied to the Capulet and Montague families’ ongoing feud. Certainly, the theme of water plays heavily in Romeo and Juliet’s relationship, first warm and inviting, then dark and forbidding, until finally, it dries up completely, leaving the audience and the characters withered and parched.
The audience’s first glimpse of Juliet is when she has her head in the bathtub, smiling down into the camera, her hair floating around her in a glorious cascade, as if she is a water nymph of pure perfection and innocence. When Romeo and Juliet first lock eyes, it is through a fish tank, with him on one side and her on the other. The tank enlarges them to one another’s eyes, bringing to life every glorious youthful smile and flirtatious twinkle. It is the birthplace of true love because neither can hide from the other the authenticity of the attraction each is experiencing.
The famous balcony scene is portrayed differently than usual, with Romeo and Juliet on the same playing field. She comes down into the back courtyard where there is a massive swimming pool brightly aglow from underwater lights. He startles her and together they fall into the pool. It is an intimate act, swirling in the glow of the lights, her skirts and hair brushing against him, the water pushing them together. Again, the audience is given a light-hearted view of water, that it sparks a playful joy and connection in the characters, inviting them to splash, to dive, and to fear nothing.
But the water is fickle and changeable.
The day of Romeo’s marriage to Juliet dawns bright and sunny, with no clouds to mar their happiness. That is, until the confrontation between Romeo, Tybalt, and Mercutio. The ocean waves start to stir as Tybalt and Mercutio face off, and the skies only worsen once Romeo arrives, eager to tell his friends of his marriage, only to find a raging Tybalt in his face. Tybalt punches, and punches, and punches, and the sky rages in flashes of clouds and lightning until the moment when Tybalt and Mercutio clash for the final time, leaving Mercutio deadly wounded.
Mercutio stumbles towards the ocean waves, away from the ruins of the Sycamore Grove Theater, as if the water itself could save him. He doesn’t make it to the ocean’s edge. Tears race down Romeo’s face as he clutches a dying Mercutio. The sky breaks, flooding the scene in enough water to rival a typhoon. The chase scene happens in torrential rain, and when Tybalt’s end comes at Romeo’s hand, the bullets from Romeo’s gun propel him backwards into a fountain. Tybalt floats in the reddening water of the fountain as Romeo screams, “I am fortune’s fool!”
So, the swimming pool gets transformed from a joyous place of true love to one of cruel fate, a juxtaposition that continues when Juliet lets Romeo out of her balcony after their wedding night. He slips and falls into the swimming pool in the courtyard below and as she stares down at him, she watches him sink, and her “ill-divining soul” grows cold. To her, he appears “as one dead in the bottom of a tomb.” A chilling transformation, indeed, from the glow of youth that suffused them both when they met and splashed and played in the same pool.
Romeo’s banishment for Tybalt’s murder takes effect, and he flees the city of Verona for Mantua, a ramshackle dust-bowl of a trailer park on the outskirts of the city. And there he waits, his skin drying, crusting over with dirt, cracking from the heat. The playful joy of the water has departed from Romeo and Juliet completely, leaving nothing left but their eventual end.
Baz Luhrmann’s use of water to depict the passage of time, and even Romeo and Juliet’s relationship as it blossoms with hope and then crumbles into despair is brilliant. There has never been such a unique adaptation of one of William Shakespeare’s plays. Romeo + Juliet is both a horrendous adaptation and a brilliant one, with the brilliancy winning out because there has never been before or since a pair of actors capable of completely capturing the love and loss of Romeo and Juliet. Twenty-five years later, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes’ interpretation of the characters still endures as the most faithful incarnation of Shakespeare’s vision. Romeo + Juliet is the highlight of cinematic genius from the 1990s.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: When Carissa Horton isn’t working full-time for a local NGO, she’s either reading the classics, delving into new knitting projects, plotting an adventure to someplace new, playing with her cat Bucky Barnes, or enjoying films from some of her favorite movie stars like Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando, Jeff Goldblum, and Brendan Fraser. She’s a JASNA member and dreams of taking that ultimate Jane Austen trip to England to immerse herself in literary culture, but until then, fondly remembers her brief stint on the stage as Charlotte Lucas in a local production of Pride & Prejudice. You can occasionally find her on her blog, Musings of an Introvert, but she confesses to being a lazy writer who doesn’t do as much writing as she should without a deadline.