Leonardo and Juliet

Hollywood’s sultriest young actor, Shakespeare’s steamiest romance.

In the old days, when the studios ran Hollywood, a young actor with the unwieldy name Leonardo DiCaprio wouldn’t have gotten very far without renaming himself Lee or Lance. Now, of course, actors run Hollywood, and Leonardo remains Leonardo. He is the feline young man who occupies the covers of magazines without having ever had a certified commercial hit. William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, his new movie with Claire Danes and the Australian director Baz Luhrmann, goes some way toward fulfilling the hopes and hype invested in him. At first glance, the movie itself is the more arresting phenomenon; it may be the most visually imaginative Shakespeare film since Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, and certainly one of the more operatic Hollywood creations of recent years. But it’s DiCaprio who supplies the intensity needed to thread Luhrmann’s images together. He can’t be said to have matured as an actor, but he is swiftly advancing.

In his early 20s, DiCaprio is a strange, wiry presence, tall but very skinny, sometimes looking much younger than his age, sometimes like a starving older self. He seems nervous, unsettled, fragile, but also ruthless. In the industry parlance, he is “not commercially proven,” which means that he has specialized in small independent films: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, This Boy’s Life, The Basketball Diaries, Total Eclipse. His career really began when River Phoenix died of an overdose; those last two roles, as Jim Carroll’s teen-age junkie and as Arthur Rimbaud, were ones Phoenix intended to take. As it happens, both movies were thoroughly awful, with DiCaprio running amok in exhibitions of self-conscious bratty behavior. He doesn’t have any of Phoenix’s eerie, shifty calm; instead, his talent is for expressive fidgeting.

Until this Romeo, DiCaprio hadn’t actually amounted to much. His work could be praised as refreshingly offbeat, although, in all honesty, American independent film is currently drowning in the offbeat. The aimless agonies of the young are no longer refreshing. River Phoenix, who had as much natural talent for acting as anyone, spent too much of his short life pursuing offbeat roles. It’s worth noting that his drug-fueled decline was the result of an unduly earnest Method-style immersion in the offbeat lives of junkie hustlers, required as research for My Own Private Idaho. The news that DiCaprio was going to star in his own hip, youthful version of Shakespeare added to a sense of déjà vu. For My Own Private Idaho was, among other things, a grotesque attempt at a grunge translation of Henry IV, Part 1.

But Romeo is a different proposition. All the dialogue is taken directly from Shakespeare; the actors speak their lines with a quasi-Elizabethan staginess, mixing in contemporary urban accents only for passing effect. The elegant and imperturbable Claire Danes goes through the whole film with a mildly Anglicized, theatrically poised delivery–“Wherefore art thou Romeo?” rising and falling, making clear she’s asking “why” rather than “where,” all by the book. This is a “modern dress” production in the same sense that Peter Sellers produces modern-dress Mozart or Wagner: the text is the same, the setting is different. (Baz Luhrmann has in fact directed opera, most recently Benjamin Britten’s AMidsummer Night’s Dream at the Edinburgh Festival.) DiCaprio doesn’t try to lose his flat Los Angeles accent, and some of his dialogue comes out like iambic gibberish. But his dire enthusiasm keeps you engaged even when he fails to make sense.

T o say that the setting is different is to understate the case severely. The play has been moved to a nonexistent place called Verona Beach, Fla.: It resembles Miami at times, Los Angeles at others, even though the filming took place in Mexico City. Much of the wonder of this movie comes from the landscapes Luhrmann creates with his camera: a smoggy, glowing city at night; sun-blasted beaches strewn with wreckage; a vast ruined arch by the ocean, with a fantastically touched-up thunderstorm looming overhead. The feud between the Montagues and the Capulets has become something like a gang war, which means a certain debt is owed to West Side Story; but their interior decor is far too opulent and phantasmagoric to suggest any plausible parallel in gang culture. These criminal families are still medieval, feudalistic at heart: Paul Sorvino, playing Capulet, carries himself like a freebasing Medici.

It seems at first that the movie is going to pursue a gaudy, irreverent approach to Shakespeare. The prologue is spoken by a well-groomed anchorwoman on the Verona Beach 11 o’clock news; the opening skirmish of Montagues and Capulets takes place as a gun battle in a gas station, filmed in insanely rapid Tarantino style; Mercutio appears at the Capulet ball in RuPaul-like drag, presiding over a hallucinogenic rave party. Luhrmann seems to encourage Harold Perrineau’s Mercutio, John Leguizamo’s Tybalt, and DiCaprio himself to swagger about as sexily as possible, in a way that reviewers will no doubt describe as “campy” or “homoerotic” (though it’s nothing more than men swaggering sexily). Throughout, Luhrmann and co-screenwriter Craig Pearce find jokey modern analogues for events in the play: For instance, when Friar Lawrence’s letters explaining the fake suicide of Juliet tragically fail to reach Romeo, it’s because an overnight delivery operation called Post Haste finds him “not at home” in his desert hideaway.

None of this begins to convey the lurid bustle on the surface of this film: Luhrmann has created a completely distinctive movie world. But he wisely slows the pace when the lovers begin their major scenes together. Danes has abbreviated monologues in which to establish her character, but she easily communicates a particular kind of knowing sweetness, reflective passion, and other shadings between innocence and experience. DiCaprio begins as a pretentious, moping fop, as the play demands; is boyishly playful on meeting Juliet; and becomes progressively more antic as circumstances block his path. He finds the right moments to unleash the high-pitched fury that seems so frightening coming from such a thin form. The movie’s potentially jarring switch from high jinks to tragedy comes off only through the pressure of his performance. The two young actors are not always perfectly comfortable together, but they deliver their own slackerish semblance of grand passion. They could hardly go wrong with Luhrmann’s unashamedly melodramatic, split-second staging of Romeo’s suicide. Danes has a brief but great moment of agony before blowing herself away with Romeo’s silver gun.

The picture has talent to burn. Luhrmann has a visionary touch you may not have expected on the basis of his debut film, Strictly Ballroom. Donald McAlpine’s cinematography and Catherine Martin’s production design generate continually dizzying images. Leguizamo and Sorvino are giddily over the top in their supporting roles, along with Pete Postlethwaite as a hip-priest Friar Lawrence. Nellee Hooper’s score allows some delicate, Mascagni-like intermezzos in and among the pounding dance music and alternative-rock anthems. The movie has a huge sense of style; the performances are all over the top, but consistently, ardently so. If I’ve singled out DiCaprio, it’s because the film seems more or less an extravagantly well-appointed vehicle for him. His Romeo is something more than the familiar sad victim of fate, something more like the furious cipher of Hamlet. But for God’s sake, keep him away from Kenneth Branagh.

Meeting cute: Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Juliet (Claire Danes) (30-second clip): {Sound01 - romeo1.avi or {Sound04 - download time, 5.50 minutes at 56K {Sound02 - bob-rj1.asf for sound only  

Mercutio (Harold Perrineau) baits Tybalt (John Leguizamo) (30-second clip):
Sound05 - romeo2.avi or Sound06 -; download time, 4.75 minutes at 56K Sound03 - bob-rj2.asf or sound only