The Montague family has been at loggerheads with the Capulet family for years. The rivalry starts with the eldest generations - Fulgencio Capulet and Ted Montague - and has now filtered down to their offspring to the point where gunfights terrorise the city, much to the disgust of Captain Prince (Vondie Curtis-Hall) - the Chief of Police.
While in disguise with their friend Mercutio (Harold Perrineau) at a Capulet party, the youngest Montague, Romeo (Leonardo Di Caprio) spots a young lady who seems to reciprocate his instant chemistry.
Unfortunately, the young lady is Juliet Capulet (Claire Danes) and as they declare their undying love for one another, her mother is arranging her marriage to a rich benefactor. Will Juliet defy her mother for her family's sworn enemy?
Romeo + Juliet is a thoroughly modern take on the Shakespeare tragedy - denim is plentiful, Di Caprio's hair wouldn't look out of place in a boy band and hip-hop/rap music continues throughout the film - letting the audience know that they're watching a film from the 1990's.
Despite this, the film retains the Shakespearean dialogue. Swords have been replaced with guns and are cleverly given the names of pointy objects (dagger, sword etc.) and worn in clearly visible holsters so that the speech isn't completely out of place. Many of the most famous lines from the play have been kept for authenticity to its roots. Unfortunately, well-known monologues apart, much of the speech is read at such a pace it is difficult to understand anything of what's going on. My father once told me that he had to learn the complete Canterbury Tales in original old English at school, saying it was stupid to learn something he didn't care about in a language he didn't understand. I can see where he was coming from.
Don't get me wrong - I love William Shakespeare. He is probably the biggest influence in the English language since the Norman invasion of 1066 and any opportunity to modernise his works should be encouraged. Romeo & Juliet is a story that I only knew the bare bones of but, after watching Romeo + Juliet, I'm still none the wiser.
Unless you're a huge Shakespeare fan and you're 'down with the kids', you will probably be alienated either by the surroundings or by the dialogue. Sure, director Baz Luhrmann does manage to convey the unrequited love (a theme which he'd later visit in Moulin Rouge! and Australia) between his two protagonists and there is some empathy to a degree, but it was far more confusing than it should have been. Perhaps it would have worked with modern English subtitles.
All in all a film which is aided by its Shakespeare background and tries hard to modernise, but fails to impress.