An analysis of the opening scene of Baz Luhrmann’s ROMEO + JULIET
When Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann released his adaptation of “Romeo + Juliet” in 1998, it polarised critics and audiences. Some hated its fast-paced, in-your-face style, which critic Mary Travers described as “a loud and adolescent mockery of Shakespeare’s classic tale”. On the other hand, others admired the way Luhrmann retold the centuries-old story in a very modern context, making it feel, in the words of reviewer David Stratton, “fresh and invigorating”. So, which is it, folks? Well, an analysis of the opening scene of the film proves that while Luhrmann’s interpretation was radical (and even ridiculous) in many aspects, he did succeed in keeping the essential elements – the HEART of the story - intact.
The main function of this scene in the play is to establish the conflict between the Montagues and the Capulets, and to introduce us to two of the main supporting characters: Benvolio and Tybalt. Luhrmann uses mise en scene, cinematography, sound and editing techniques to establish these characters and the conflicts in an extremely quick and efficient manner. Our first view of the Montague boys is a Close-Up of a bald head with MONTAGUE clearly tattooed on it. Next, we cut to a Medium Shot, showing the three Montagues in their flamboyant clothes and fancy car, and the on-screen text introduces them even more explicitly. Many lines of Shakespeare’s dialogue have been removed from the scene, but they weren’t necessary: the visuals introduce these characters clearly enough. The tattoos, the personalised license plate and the actors’ performances clearly communicate that these boys are a tight-knit, proud and loyal gang with wild, extroverted personalities… just as in the original play.
The Capulet boys are introduced in a different but equally powerful manner: we see Close-Ups of their expensive, smart black dress shoes and flashes of their well-tailored suits as they step out of their car (which also has personalised plates for easy recognition). There is an obvious and effective use of costuming and other mise en scene elements to establish the differences between the two families. The Montagues wear loud, bright clothes that, along with their spiky punk hairstyles and hyperactive manner, make them seem like clownish buffoons. The Capulets are much more threatening and serious in their dark, expensive-looking suits. They are well-groomed with neat but intricate hairstyles and facial hair. Their mannerisms are also more contained and less manic. As the scene progresses, it is easy to tell the families apart. Shakespeare wrote extensive amounts of dialogue in this scene to suggest the contrasts between the two groups; Luhrmann was able to omit much of it without changing the characters or plot due to his creative uses of film language.
The modern setting of the film makes Luhrmann’s version seemingly very different from the original, but the film faithful in all the ways that matter. The aggressive hip hop tracks that play throughout most of the scene might be unlike any music that was invented in Shakespeare’s time, but they complement the dark and violent tone that was present in the original play. The use of guns instead of swords is only a superficial change that does not change the plot: in fact, Luhrmann even manages