Olde English Invasion

A few weeks ago, I saw a preview for William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet. A woman in the row behind me remarked, "He must be turning over in his grave." Shakespeare, she meant.

Well, why not? Turning over in one's grave is part of what Romeo & Juliet is all about. It's impossible to say whether Shakespeare might approve of this new, 20th-century, Floridian-dress action-movie version from Australian director Baz Luhrmann, but the film has, at least, as much right to the title prefix William Shakespeare's as Franco Zeffirelli's Renaissance-schmaltz version of 1968. Maybe more.

It's even harder to say what Shakespeare would make of Looking for Richard, a free-wheeling documentary dissection of Richard III which marks Al Pacino's debut as a film director. Whatever Shakespeare did think about them, he would at least have to admit that they hold the screen as well as his plays hold the stage.

What both films share, along with considerable value as entertainment, is an attempt to develop an approach to Shakespearean drama that is purely and unapologetically American, not a Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts-spawned inferiority complex. Though Luhrmann's an Aussie, both his film and Looking for Richard are about American pop culture looking for Will.

Luhrmann's R&J takes place in "Verona Beach," a sensuously decayed Florida/Gulf Coast-type town seething with pointless discord between the Montagues and Capulets. Here the feuding clans and their sympathizers include Italians, Latinos, Anglos, blacks and Wasps, all of them separated less by these distinctions than by what's in a name.

It has been said that Shakespeare populated the world with Englishmen; Luhrmann, in turn, makes Shakespeare's suspiciously English versions of Italian nobles and street youths and servants into American archetypes. The adaptation (by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce) sticks to Shakespeare's words but mangles and tosses aside the iambic pentameter before the actors ever get to it.

Thus John Leguizamo spits Tybalt's lines out between clenched teeth--"Romyo, dow awrt a villin." Mercutio (Harold Perrineau) goes to the masque in drag, and his "Queen Mab" speech refers to a hallucinogenic he is offering Romeo. Paul Sorvino's elder Capulet is an overgrown-baby Godfather, his wife (Diane Venora) is a Southern belle, the Montagues (Brian Dennehy and Christina Pickles) are vaguely nouveau riche, Paris (Paul Rudd) is a rich bachelor of the JFK Jr. stripe and the Apothecary (M. Emmet Walsh) is a grizzled clerk at a pool hall. The cast does include two Brits, Pete Postlethwaite as "Father" Laurence and that delightful dialect specialist Miriam Margolyes as the Nurse, but the former uses generic diction, the latter a Cuban accent.

With this jumble of races, ethnicities and classes, Luhrmann makes his first thematic point: Those divisions, which so ravage our society, are just an idiotic variation on what's in a name. We'd be hard-pressed to find anything that provocative in the quaint, Ren Faireish, tights-and-doublets Veronas we're offered so often on the stage.

On an intellectual level, of course, this point wouldn't seem provocative at all, but thin and obvious. That American cities are hotbeds of meaningless enmity and violence doesn't require a 400-year-old text to elucidate. But as Robertson Davies pointed out, Shakespeare's art isn't about the intellect, it's about the heart and the gut. Luhrmann's "Verona Beach" makes us feel the real theme of the play--the desperation of honest love in a world of deadly, mindless conflict--in a way that few modern productions have.

Most so-called "traditional" productions of R&J, onstage or in film, push a fairy-tale atmosphere. This approach may have stemmed, initially, from the one purely mythic conceit that Shakespeare asks us to accept: love at first sight. Once the two protagonists meet, they fall in pure, zealous love, and know each other to the bottom of their souls.

Most directors seem to feel that the setting of the play should reflect this perfection. But there's nothing at all quaint about Shakespeare's Verona--it's a tough town. Accordingly, Luhrmann stages the "civil brawl" which opens the story as a gunfight out of a spaghetti Western, with Montague and Capulet thugs blazing away at each other with automatic weapons at a gas station.

The Prince (Vondie Curtis-Hall) arrives in a swarm of police helicopters to break it up, and a TV news anchor intones the words of the chorus--"Two houses, both alike in dignity . . ."--in front of a graphic reading "MONTAGUE. CAPULET. THE FEUD CONTINUES."

And so on. This borders on the gimmicky, to be sure, and at times it slips over that border. It wasn't necessary, for instance, to give the guns brand names like "Sword 9mm" or "Dagger" to explain why the boys don't call them guns, and there are times when the Shakespearean in-jokes, cute though some are, get a bit distracting.  

Overall, Luhrmann's chaotic, headlong, try-anything-once style--similar to that of his previous feature, the frothy comedy Strictly Ballroom--seems amazingly right for this material. What's most remarkable about this pop free-for-all approach is that it doesn't diminish the power of the love story at all. In traditional stagings (and certainly in West Side Story), the lovers often get lost in the midst of more vivid secondary characters like Mercutio or the Nurse, because the title roles are seen less as characters and more as vehicles for the soaring love poetry.

Luhrmann's having none of that crap. He's cast Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, two major teen-idol types with strong personalities, in the leads. By making the hero and heroine less facelessly mythic, Luhrmann increases the enchantment of their brief, happy marriage, and the bitter poignancy of its outcome.

Much as I agree with this approach in concept, DiCaprio as Romeo had me bracing for the worst. DiCaprio gave some enormously promising performances in his first few movies, but his recent works have been a series of extended, intolerable whines. It's a pleasure to say that, although he lapses into that horrid cat-sex screeching at times during the laments, DiCaprio makes, overall, a fairly restrained, dignified, unembarrassing Romeo. He could even be called appealing.

The stunner, though, is Claire Danes. Though Juliet is said to be just 14 in the text, her language and behavior belie this age. Danes, now 17, is the rare teenager with the onscreen grace and poise to pull off all the aspects of the role--the wit and wariness, the youthful sexuality, the strength, the wonderful yet disastrous decisiveness of spirit. Danes shows us all of this and more, with no precocity, no showiness, no milking. She was born to play Juliet.

It would be just as true to say that Al Pacino was born to play Richard III, and he has done so several times onstage. He's proved cautious in his approach to the malformed Machiavellian tyrant as a film role, however.

Rather than a straight adaptation (there have already been at least five), Pacino decided to make his Richard III movie a sort of Shakespeare bash. Intercut, flashily, with full-length performances of the play's highlight scenes is documentary footage of Pacino interviewing or debating the play, the role and Shakespeare in general with actors and scholars. Some of the interviewees are Europeans--John Gielgud, Kenneth Branagh, Viveca Lindfors--and some are Americans--Kevin Kline or F. Murray Abraham. But most if not all of the actors in the actual stagings are Americans: Pacino as Richard, of course; Kevin Spacey as Buckingham, Harris Yulin as Edward; Estelle Parsons as baleful old Margaret; Aidan Quinn as Richmond; Paul Guilfoyle as one of the Murderers; Alec Baldwin, surprisingly strong, as Clarence.

Pacino skulks around Gothic-looking locations in New York and London, sometimes in full Elizabethan drag, sometimes in a long coat, with a Scent of a Woman baseball cap turned around on his head, performing the monologues. Then we see him sitting around a table with actor pals, discussing the play. Much talk about the debilitating awe that Yank actors feel when it comes to the Bard. Then we'll get a staged scene--say, Richard's wooing of Lady Anne (Winona Ryder!) over the corpse of her hubby. In this manner, Pacino works his way through the narrative, all the way to "A horse, a horse!" The only big moments we don't get are, significantly, scenes without Richard: Clarence's dream and Buckingham's last, bitter monologue as he awaits his execution.

Any condescension toward American actors playing Shakespeare ultimately boils down to a question of aesthetic technique--the presentational verbal style favored by Brits is thought to be better for classical material than the internal "method" favored by most American actors. Pacino uses coherent diction, but beyond that, he makes no effort to disguise his New York accent, and he seems every inch a Richard. Ryder sounds like a California girl, too--she clicks her tongue when Richard says he wishes to lie in her bedchamber, and it really sounds like she's going to say "As if!" But these anachronisms aren't as risible as they sound. They simply seem like parts of the experiment.

If all this sounds like self-indulgence, it's because that's what it is. But self-indulgence is what we pay some actors for, and Pacino is one of them. An actor who didn't have at least some penchant for indulging himself wouldn't be much of a Richard III. Still, for all its jazzy editing and artsy frills, Looking for Richard is much less daring than Luhrmann's pungent, mixed-up R&J. Entertaining though it is, Looking for Richard is like a cleverly presented term paper. William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet is flawed in spots, but it's a full-blooded--all-American--movie.  

Looking for Richard: Directed by Al Pacino; with Al Pacino, Estelle Parsons, Alec Baldwin, Winona Ryder, Aidan Quinn, Kevin Spacey, Sir Derek Jacobi, Sir John Gielgud, Kenneth Branagh, James Earl Jones, Vanessa Redgrave and Kevin Kline. Rated PG.

William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet:
Directed by Baz Luhrmann; with Claire Danes, Leonardo DiCaprio, Paul Sorvino, Miriam Margolyes, Vondie Curtis-Hall, M. Emmet Walsh and Christina Pickles.


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