‘Romeo and Juliet’, a play originally written by William Shakespeare in 1595 – 1600 is a tale of love and tragedy involving two young people who fall in love, but find it ends in disaster due to their age old family feud. This play had been directed as a film in 1968 starring Olivia Hussey, but never before has it been modernised as a film. By choosing to do this the problem that faced Baz Luhrman when he was directing the film version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was that he could not predict whether there would be an audience for Shakespearean stories in a modern culture.
Particuarly as the age group he was targeting were those who would probably still be at school, where Shakespeare had been stereotyped as ‘boring’. This problem was tackled by updating the swords involved by replacing them with guns, adding a famous cast known to the particular chosen age group and backing the film up with modern music. The opening scene of Baz Luhrman’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ begins with a screen of black, and a very small television screen in the centre.
As the shot continues the camera zooms in on the television screen that is showing a coloured female newsreader, with a plain background and a split ring in the top right hand corner. This entrance to the first scene of the film forces the audience to concentrate on the film by introducing it slowly, making you feel anything missed will detract from the film’s impact.
The newsreader is dressed in red, the classic colour of love, danger, passion and blood, and the ring split in two with the words “Star-crossed lover” subtly introduce the main themes of the films while the audience is focusing on what the newsreader is reporting. The screen around the television is black, focusing all attention on the newsreader, and her voice is quiet and sounds almost muted while she talks of the feud of Verona, re-enforcing the director’s obvious wish to capture the attention of the viewers.
With this red on black theme it seems to represent the blood and tragedy of the story of Romeo and Juliet on the rest of the town, and almost shows the final tragic word on the darkness of the two feuding families. From this opening, though the newsreader does not directly speak of the main characters, Romeo and Juliet, you feel as if the feud is already familiar before entering in to the actual film. The change from the first scene to the second is a very quick jump cut.
The camera zooms very close in on the newsreader tilting, and jumps through to a street in Verona, travelling down it and coming to a halt at a large statue of Jesus, but only allowing you a very quick glance before switching to a black screen with the words “In Fair Verona” in large white capitals at eye level. It then jump cuts back to a the same picture of Jesus, but this time it is a closer shot, and holds for a bit longer, before very quickly zooming back to show the statue in between two sky scrapers, one named “Capulet” in red, and one named “Montague” in blue.
The buildings are the highest in the street, and with the statue in between them seem very important and noble, informing the audience of the family’s wealth and power, and also of their rivalry. The statue standing dead centre between the two towers shows that while religion is important in this story, and does to a certain extent act as a barrier between the two families, it is much smaller then the buildings, symbolising that their feud may prove stronger then their religion.
The next shot is a jump cut on to the camera moving on to the streets of Verona, and a tracking shot of a police car with the words “Verona Beach” written down the side. This shot of the police car informs the viewers that police are involved, and the place the play is set in is called “Verona Beach”. Once focused on the car the camera tilts and zooms out, jumping in to a zoom in shot of the same statue of Jesus, which it zooms in on, jump cuts back to a second shot and zooms in again, this time blurring the statue.
This blurring shows the disregard held by the families towards their religion as the feud gets greater. The scenes by now are moving very quickly and are very separated, not flowing smoothly at all. It is quite difficult to keep with the speed at which the film is moving, Luhrman once again trying to keep the audiences attention. Following on from the blurred shot of the statue, the camera, remaining blurry, focusing in turn, on the signs above each building, reading first “Capulet” in red and then “Montague” in blue.
These choices of colour cause you to question whether or not the Capulet family are more ‘fierce’, with their name in red. You then get a tracking shot of a police helicopter against what you assume to be a church, and the city of Verona. Again re enforcing the religion verses law theme that is apparent throughout this film in Verona. Following this is a zoom in shot of a person lying on a mattress in the street surrounded by dirt and people in black. Through this shot you assume the person involved is injured, showing the severity of the feud.
Again, jump cutting to the next scene, though seeming to slow the pace slightly, you get an aerial tracking shot from the helicopter with the diagetic sounds of the propellers, of a large statue of the Virgin Mary standing with open arms. Quickly moving on through a jump cut the statue of Jesus seen before is briefly shown, before zooming in on his face, although it is made up of many small dots, and shown in dark grey and black. This shot is held and zoomed out to reveal a ‘family tree’ with both families on it, starting at the top with ‘Ted Montague’ and ‘Fulgencio Montague’.
Symbolic of the hatred that is passed down the family through each generation. The music up to this point has been very loud and ‘menacing’, increasing in volume when what I see as ‘relevant shots’ are held. The lighting has been bright throughout, all shots set in the day, and there have been no characters introduced until the family tree. The beginning shots seem to be more introducing the place and the themes than the characters themselves. The layout of this tree implies that the rivalry started between these two men and has been passed down through the family.
With the statue of Jesus with open arms set between the two families reminds us of the strong religion present in the city, and the grey colour of the pictures and background sets in almost like a cloud of grey, strongly contrasting with the colour we have seen in the previous scenes. As well as being the first shot of the characters, also introduced in this scene is the first voice since the newsreader, although this time it is non diagetic, in the form of a voice over. The music reaches a climax and then fades away to a quiet backing for the deep male voice commenting on the family trees in front of us.
The shots of this ‘tree’ are broken up by shots of fire and newspapers titled “Montague vs Capulet”, and while the speed of the changing shots has slowed down, now dissolving in to each other, Luhrman makes up for it with the impact of the shots he is using, you need more time to look at each one then before. Coming off the newspaper shot using dissolving and fire, we see the familiar screen of black with white text reading “In Fair Verona”, reminding us of the setting while looking in to the characters, as seen before when the city was being introduced and we were shown the names of the families.
This subtle mixing of the two is very effective in showing the strong relationship between the setting and characters, and the effect that they have on each other. This phrasing of “Fair Verona” is ironic, as although we are being told the city is fair, we are shown only violent shots of the goings on and only ‘controversial” shots of the place itself. Moving on from the text shot we are shown a series of tracking shots of Verona, similar to those shown before, combining diagetic sounds such as the helicopter propellers with non diagetic such as the voice over.
We then get another still shot of a newspaper reading “Ancient Grudge” followed shortly by a third newspaper reading “New Mutiny” and a picture of one of the young Montague boys. This “ancient grudge” followed by “new mutiny” re enforces the idea of the feud being passed down the family that we were introduced to through the family tree. The text is also in older style writing, showing that such an old thing has carried through in to modern day. This picture of the young Montague holding a gun is the first we see of the younger generations of the families, and it is associated with anger through his face and death through his gun.
The next newspaper clip we get is “Civil blood”, also read out to us by the voice over, this emphasises the fact that the brawls caused by the families do not only affect themselves, but the rest of Verona. We are shown a tracking shot of a middle ages coloured man wearing helicopter equipment against a dark background, fitting as the shots seem to be getting darker, set later on in the day. The word ‘Police’ is shown in large white text against black, symbolising their affect on the feud, good on bad or clean on dirty.
There is then a series of shots of Verona and magazines with bullets on the covers, showing how much violence there is in the city. It is made out to be a loud, busy dangerous place reflected in the characters themselves. The feuding families seem to sum up the rivalry present within the city, Religion verses hatred, Law verses war. Although you may argue that at this stage you are unable to establish whether it is the place reflected through the characters or the characters strife being the reason for the way the place is. We then get our first shot of a man and a woman in a black car, both look drawn and very worried.
Jump cutting through to a shot of a second couple, obviously the other family, recognisable only because of the quick glance we got of the man on the family tree. This creates a broken up image of the families, imposing the idea that the families ‘get in the way’ of each other. As the music builds up again there are two screens of just text, when put together reading “A pair of star crossed lover take their life”. The ‘T’ in the ‘take’ is actually a cross when you look at it, bringing religion in to death. At this point the voice over is stopped and the music becomes loud again.
Following the text the camera then jumps from one to another introducing through text and a frozen image of each character, the Capulets, the Montagues, both with the under text ‘Romeo’s mother/father’ and ‘Juliet’s mother/father. To follow we meet the chief of police ‘Captain Prince’, the Governor’s son ‘Dave Paris’ and ‘Mercutio’, Romeo’s best friend, in a provocative position with his face angry and his finger pointed with a gun on him. Each character has a shot held on them for about 5 seconds before jumping straight on to the next.
As the music builds up we see a pair of eyes, later recognised to be those of Romeo Montague, pushing the door of a church open to reveal light and flowers, portraying the church as a place of sanctity. This relates to the theme of religion present throughout the film, and it also gives a preview of the place in which the lovers lives end. Luhrman would have realised that as ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is such a widely read play the majority of the audience would know then ending of the film, thus giving him a lot of scope to play around with previews of the rest of the film.
The music quickens pace and very quickly we are run through the text previously shown and spoken but at a speed that it is not supposed to be read. This is followed by shots of fireworks, choirboys singing high piercing notes almost as a climax, guns shooting showing violence, main characters and eventually finishes on a black screen with “William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet”. This creates a point of high climax, quickly let down by the still almost ‘dead’ screen in comparison to previous shots.
The mention of William Shakespeare is the first we hear of the author, and in mentioning him Luhrman has made himself seem almost modest, discarding any impression made implying that it is Luhrman’s own play. The title then moves off the screen to the left and the film begins. As an opening sequence for this particular film I find it very effective. The setting of such a film in modern day would have proved very difficult, but the replacement of swords by guns has a huge impact on its success.
The violence is portrayed well and you learn just about enough to follow the film as it opens but not enough to know what happens between now and the death of the characters. I like the way Luhrman lets the audience know the resulting death of the characters, but he does not say who dies. This builds up an immense suspense throughout the film. This introduction is done in such a way that it will captivate almost everyone’s attention through moving so quickly and creating such a tense atmosphere.