This review is going to cover the 1968 and 1996 versions of the classic, starting Leonard Whiting/Olivia Hussey and Leo DiCaprio/Claire Danes respectively.
For anyone who slept through 9th-grade English class, the William Shakespeare classic (originally published in 1597) tells the story of two kids from feuding families. They meet, catch instant “feels”, get married a day later, and blow up both of their families. Six people die, including the two lovebirds.
I’ve had a funny relationship with this play ever since I first read it freshman year and thought it was the most romantic thing on earth. But as five years have passed and I’ve come around to the play in some form about once a year, I see more of the insanity of the plot and the lack of adult guidance or sensibility.
1968-Olivia Hussey/Leonard Whiting
Some common themes throughout my notes were: 1. Juliet appears to be a good girl, but she’s actually a ratchet rebel. 2. Romeo is incredibly impulsive and his affections change on a dime-I can relate, much to my chagrin. 3. The Friar is almost entirely to blame for the fuckery of the last 30 minutes. Overall the real tragedy of the play is the lack of responsible adults to smack these kids
The performances by Whiting and Hussey are both commendable, although Hussey seems more grounded and believable. Hussey carries the right blend of naïveté and desire to give a compelling portrayal of a girl who does what she can to break the rules.
*yes Leonard Whiting bears an eerie resemblance to Zac Efron, no they are not related to my knowledge.
1996-Claire Danes/Leonardo DiCaprio
Right from the first frame, this is a fast-paced movie with lots of background operatic music. The real draw of this movie could also be its turn-off: keeping the Shakespearean dialogue while updating the setting and costumes. It’s definitely jarring for the first 10-20 minutes, but eventually one gets used to it.
Ok a word on Claire Danes: in Little Women, she was a great actress as shy Beth. But apparently she brings the same shy unsure qualities to Juliet. There are times when Juliet is called to be shy and unsure, but there are other times in the first act when she needs to be brazen. Claire’s performance seems to turn on a dime in the scene of refusing a second marriage. There she is able to conjure up some pain and anger and maintain it through the finale. Or as I put it in a text message, “I was wrong about Claire Danes in R+J. She is flat in the first act, but when her parents come to tell her about Paris, then she unleashes the fury of hell and it’s interesting.”
DiCaprio brings a certain underlying nihilism to the role that Whiting lacked. Whiting’s Romeo is pure eagerness and impulse while DiCaprio is more pretentiousness and melancholy.
Overall I give this version 8.5/10, for stunning visuals, having Paul Rudd, and Leonardo’s committed performance. Two points docked solely for Claire Danes’s lack of emotion in the first act.
Fan Edit-My Immortal-Evanescence
(Here is a fan video of clips from the 1996 movie over “My Immortal” by Evanescence
Comparison and Contrast
The main difference between these two is their aesthetics. The aesthetic of the 1968 version is “typical Shakespeare”, while the aesthetic of 1996 is best summed up as “neon, cigarettes, guns”. For anyone who watches the 1996 version and is reminded of a Halsey video or song, she once said she watched it every day for a year, so similarities are not coincidental.
One thing I appreciate is that both versions omit the death of Paris (outside the Capulet tomb, Romeo fights with Paris and stabs him.) I always felt that Paris got the shortest end of the stick, getting killed by some stranger outside the tomb of his betrothed, who died under freaky mysterious circumstances
Another difference I noticed is that Luhrmann incorporates an element of racial tension by making Mercutio African-American and Tybalt and the nurse Latina/o. I don’t know whether Luhrmann was simply trying to reflect life as he saw it in California in the 90s or if he meant to make a political point.
Overall, I tend to prefer the 1968 version, mostly for the muted aesthetics and highly talented performance of Ms. Hussey, but there are charms to both movies. It´s less a ¨which is better¨question and more a ¨which aesthetic speaks to you.¨In any case, the insanity and tragedy is a reminder to us all to be careful about the choices we make.