On their way to the Capulets’ masked ball, Harold Perrineau’s Mercutio slips Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo a white pill decorated with a heart. No sooner has Romeo taken the drug than the sky explodes in a brilliant starburst of amber rockets. And he hasn’t even met Juliet yet.
Nearly 15 years after the release of of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, watching the new Blu-ray edition is equally intoxicating.
In the second in his Red Curtain trilogy, Luhrmann bombards us with startling images, audacious camera tricks and breathtaking action – all of it put to use in recreating the overwhelming experience of adolescent love.
On Blu-ray, Romeo + Juliet has been given an eye-popping makeover. The result is dazzling, but thanks to the abundant extras on the disc you can also see into the creative process that went into the film’s making.
The disc’s picture-in-picture commentary provides small windows that pop up on screen to show rehearsal and behind-the-scenes footage, stills and designs – what Luhrmann calls “a parallel behind-the-scenes experience of the DNA underlying the cinematic experience.”
Here you’ll find out why Luhrmann set the action in the imaginary city of Verona Beach, a violent, vibrant Latin city that comes across as a cross between Miami Beach and Mexico City.
And you’ll uncover the thinking behind the decision to cast the Capulets and the Montagues as rival corporate families – the former Hispanic, the later Anglo.
It’s all fascinating stuff. But turn off the commentary and the film still enthrals, right from its bravura opening scene: a showdown at a gas station between gun-wielding members of the rival clans that climaxes in a huge fireball.
The scene is choreographed in such breakneck fashion that only in retrospect do you realise that the insults the gangbangers have been trading are Shakespeare’s dialogue, such is the film’s inspired match of Elizabethan codes of honour with Latin machismo.
The film’s invented world fuses Catholic iconography with camp. The screen is awash with candles, crosses, immaculate hearts and porcelain saints, while Mercutio is a black drag queen who lip-synchs to the Seventies disco anthem Young Hearts Run Free at the Capulets’ ball.
As with Luhrmann’s other Red Curtain films, the resulting aesthetic is both deliriously feverish and studiedly cool, combining direct emotional appeal with knowing irony.
But all of this would count for nothing were the young lovers not convincing. A year before Titanic turned him into a global pinup, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Romeo as a James Dean-like rebel-without-a-cause, while the 17-year-old Claire Danes is heart-stopping as a dreamy but resolute Juliet. They not only look the part, they also act superbly, bringing such rapture and pain to their love that their deaths still leave us with a wrenching sense of loss.
William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet is released on Blu-ray on 1st November.