November 1996

 

Here Comes a Star

A Review by David Bradley

 

It's been a mammoth year for Shakespeare (after Othello and Richard III), and this version of his star-crossed lovers tale takes it one step further than even Richard did, setting the action not in period costumes and finery but in rundown, washed-out, sub-Natural Born Killers, MTV-nightmare Verona Beach locales.

Baz Luhrmann, has both jazzed up - and fragmented - the Bard's verse so that nothing is ever what you expect: the opening narration is an on-the-spot, CNN-type reporter reciting fateful lines, drunks rant, queens mince, libidos flare, guns flash, cultures clash, a church choir rants When Doves Cry, blood runs red, streams of cinematic consciousness fill the screen, and a hotch-potch of diverse stars tear strips off each other.

You know the story, whether you be a Will groupie or a reluctant Matric dropout: Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio), the son of one warring family, the Montagues (headed by Brian Dennehy), and Juliet (Clare Danes), the daughter of another, the Capulets (headed by Paul Sorvino), continually risk their lives and incite murderous intrigue in their desperate attempts to be together while they're helped (Pete Postlethwaite as Father Laurence) or hindered (John Leguizamo as the half-crazed Tybalt) by a swag of striking characters, and you've never seen the material done like this.

The lovers' first meeting is a tricksy sequence where each is on either side of a lavish fish tank; helicopters circle with semi-automatics at the ready; heavy metal chords strum noisily on the soundtrack; the film switches to video, the camera swoops and interference crackles (more NBK); and the two central performers even stoop to staggering jivey talk for the text (when Danes' Juliet does the "Wherefore art thou Romeo?", the unexpected, offhandedly hip reading is revelatory).

Fascinatingly cast (Harold Perrineau from Smoke appears in drag as Mercutio, M. Emmet Walsh is the Apocathery, and Miriam Margoyles is a loonily funny Nurse to Juliet), and endlessly visually inventive, you have to admire the daring behind Luhrmann's poetic artillery. The bitchy arguments by pretentious Shakespeare purists are already being levelled by snotty critics who haven't even seen the film but, basically, if the material is updated to make it more accessible to more discerning modern-day audience members unwilling to swallow Larry Olivier and Dame Judi Dench prancing about in tights, that isn't a crime, and when it's done this fabulously well, who cares?

As for the two ill-fated lovers, at the core of the drama and the central focus of even as upstaging a cinematic tour de force as this, Danes is transcendent, and DiCaprio, none too surprisingly, brilliant.

Hold onto your hats, ladies and gentlemen, here comes a star.

 

Thanks a lot to Treggy !

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