In a bit of style-overkill, Friar Laurence appears at first in his greenhouse, shirtless, explaining to a couple of little boys about poisons and medicines (the scene I discussed in the last post). He's got a huge tattoo of a cross on his back, like a gangbanger instead of a priest. And I have to say, a shirtless priest alone with two little boys means something different in 2009 than it did in 1996. The scene can't help but creep you out a little.
Here are a few more stills:
The main characters: Leo DiCaprio looks the part--he's got that "fallen angel" thing going on, a little bit teen heartthrob, that totally works visually. He spends a lot of time underwater--that's Luhrmann's innovation--in what used to be the balcony scene. This is funny, of course, because Titanic came out at about the same time, and so we saw a lot of Leo underwater that year. The two movies kind of merge in your mind, an accident of cinematic history. Leo's facial expressions are a bit overdone, but you can't blame him for trying to counteract his utter inability to say the lines. Gotta work with what you have. Claire Danes is completely insipid. There is absolutely nothing special about her Juliet, and it's hard to see what even soggy Leo would find so alluring about her. And I don't mean her looks--she looks okay. But she's got none of Juliet's fire, none of her sudden realization that her life has been a lie. She literally rolls her eyes like a petulant teenager. Juliet would never do that--even a modern Juliet. She doesn't grow up at all, as she does in the play--she utters the "if looking liking move" line as if she has no real idea what she's saying. I suspect Luhrmann was so busy with his wild editing and Hollywood allusions that he didn't think it worthwhile to get these kids an acting coach who really knew Shakespeare.
And that's the heart of the problem. The language is utterly, completely irrelevant. In fact, I cringed whenever I heard the characters speak (except for Pete Postlethwaite, who plays Friar Laurence--he was okay). I wanted them to stop talking, because for the most part, they didn't even get what they were saying--at some points it was plain that they hadn't the faintest idea what the words meant. They compensated with more facial contortions, eye-rolling, and just plain yelling. The film cuts the text by almost half, which I suppose is a blessing. No "torches" speech, for example. Mercutio's Queen Mab ramblings are now the result of ingesting a hallucinogen, which I confess I didn't like a bit. As if imagination is just another rush, a toxic neurological effect. Bad, sad idea.
But on one level, the play is true to its history. Elizabethan theater was a blending of classes and class-specific genres. For the masses we have explosions, squealing tires, lots of weaponry and plenty to look at. For those of us who've read Shakespeare and want to see our erudition validated, we get--signs and billboards. This, I thought, was kind of brilliant in a debased way. Here are some examples:
But a lot is lost here. I realize that cinema--and pictures in general--are the poetry of our age. We make our metaphors that way, we understand irony that way, and we see ourselves that way. The world is a visual construct. But here's what's lost: nobility. I know it sounds corny, but listen up. We are speaking, writing animals. That's what makes us different from the other creatures with whom we share this planet. We think in words and communicate (mostly) in words. Words elevate us--that's why all our most important rituals are language-centered. The Tempest shouldn't be reduced to a billboard. I'm not saying this film shouldn't have been made--far from it. I think it's fascinating, and says a lot about where we are in history. It's truthful, and I appreciate that. But it's not great. It's not timeless--not even as enduring as the Zeffirelli one, from 1968, which is still the standard-bearer for "popular cinema Shakespeare," as far as I'm concerned. Without the words that make Juliet more than a pretty girl, make Romeo more than a hormonally-overwrought teenage dude, this play is just about a particularly intense hook-up that went really bad. Even that billboard above, from The Tempest, seems like an epitaph for something wonderful that's been lost. When seen in the context of Prospero's actual speech, it's not without irony:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Will says it much better than I can, so I'll leave him the last word.
Next: Back to the play.