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I Panned Romeo + Juliet in 1996. Now I Think It’s One of the Best Shakespeare Adaptations

8 minute read

Romeo and Juliet is rarely lauded as the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays, an honor that usually goes to Hamlet or Macbeth or King Lear. Yet Romeo and Juliet might be the most important Shakespeare: It’s the one almost everybody reads first, the one that entices our young, unformed selves to struggle with its language, initially so strange to modern ears. It’s a story of gang wars fueled by testosterone, love at first sight, and melodramatic, I-can’t-live-without-you double suicide, but it’s also the gateway drug to one of the richest, most resonant bodies of work in the English language. Romeo and Juliet is a crazy-beautiful play, and although there are thousands of ways to adapt it, from staid to gonzo, Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet—25 years old this week—is, among film versions, perhaps the most purely alive.

Because actors ostensibly need training and skill to navigate Shakespeare’s words, most productions of Romeo and Juliet cast performers who are older than the characters as he wrote them: Juliet is 13 (“she hath not seen the change of fourteen years,” according to her father); Romeo’s age is unspecified, but he’s thought to be around 17. Luhrmann wasn’t the first filmmaker to cast age-appropriate actors: In his 1968 adaptation, Franco Zeffirelli cast Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, 17 and 15, as the star-crossed lovers. The film became a staple of junior-high literature classes for years. (If you came of age in that era, you and your classmates probably giggled over Leonard Whiting’s naked ass.)

But the actors in Luhrmann’s version, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, aged 21 and 17 at the time of filming, are even more luminous than Zeffirelli’s gorgeously youthful duo, and in today’s context, their performances are even more touching than they were 25 years ago. The film overall has aged better than you’d think—which is to say it has hardly aged at all. Although Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce had to trim the play to fit into a reasonable two-hour runtime, their script largely preserves the original language. Watching Romeo + Juliet today is to be reminded of the wonder of Shakespeare, a writer whose work is so capacious and elastic that it can enfold countless interpretations and reinventions, winning over one generation after another with ease.

Lurhmann and his longtime production and costume designer Catherine Martin (also his wife) re-envisioned the play’s Verona setting in Mexico City and Veracruz, incorporating real-life locations—like Mexico City’s extravagantly decorated Immaculate Heart of Mary Church—into the story. Guns, rather than swords and daggers, are the weapons of choice, and like many of the props and costumes used in the film, they’re adorned with vibrant Catholic iconography—a handgun decorated with a benevolent Virgin Mary makes for a particularly vivid and painful irony. The Montague gang, a bunch of blockhead yobbos who favor tropical shirts unbuttoned over bare chests, stand off against the Capulet guys, a crew of slickly dressed urban cowboys in Cuban-heeled boots, with a hatred that’s white-hot. The Capulet Tybalt (John Leguizamo) is a sly devil with a soul patch and twin spit-curls, a sexy hothead who’s been carrying a grudge so long he has no idea how it started.

That’s the essential tragedy of the Capulets and the Montagues: They have no idea why they’re fighting, but their warring ways mean that the union of the Montague Romeo and the Capulet Juliet is hopeless. In Luhrmann’s vision, the most affecting casualty of the gang wars between the two is Romeo’s bestie Mercutio—a loyal companion who is possibly in love with his friend—played by Harold Perrineau as a glittery-gorgeous heir to disco legend Sylvester.

Luhrmann’s film is a dizzying assemblage of fast cutting and mad camera swirls; scenes sometimes chop off abruptly, leaving you reaching out, longing for more—but even that is part of the movie’s brash, prismatic lyricism, and because of it, Perrineau’s entrance is one of the most memorable in all of 1990s cinema: He arrives on the scene—a crumbling seaside amusement park—leaping out of a convertible in a two-piece silver mini-shorts outfit and heels, wearing a white candy-floss wig, his lips a smear of red lipstick. The song that heralds his arrival is Kym Mazelle’s version of the Candi Staton hit “Young Hearts Run Free.” He’s here, he’s queer, get used to it: Perrineau’s Mercutio is a bold pirouette of freedom. His death at Tybalt’s hand—which occurs just as, in real life, a storm was brewing in Veracruz, where the scene was being shot—leaves a hole in the film. It’s a turning point that feels like a personal wound.

Read more reviews from Stephanie Zacharek

That’s just one example of the piercing immediacy of Romeo + Juliet. And the film’s array of gifted actors—some of whom are completely comfortable with Shakespearean language, others attempting it for possibly the first time—is part of its ever-unfolding delight. The late Pete Postlethwaite is both rousing and affecting as Father Laurence (his name a slight variation on the play’s Friar Laurence), an optimistic man of the cloth who hopes that the love between two young people will heal the rift between warring families. The marvelous character actor Miriam Margolyes is effervescent as Juliet’s loyal, adoring Nurse. Paul Rudd makes a beaming, squeaky-clean “Dave” Paris, the suitor Juliet’s parents (played by Paul Sorvino and Diane Venora) have chosen for her, never mind that he’s all wrong.

Because there’s only one true husband for Danes’ Juliet, and you know it from the moment the two meet, at a costume ball at the Capulets’ swanky mansion. DiCaprio’s disguised Romeo spies his Juliet from the other side of an aquarium shimmering with polychrome fish. First he sees just one coquettish eye: it’s framed by a piece of coral, like a jewel. The moment the two spot one another is so radiant with possibility it defies language. This is how a great filmed version of Shakespeare can unlock a whole world, especially for a young person who’s anxious about comprehending the language.

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DiCaprio’s Romeo—first glimpsed in a moody moment by the sea, as he writes in his journal—is practically alight with a charming, nonthreatening openness. But it’s Danes who’s most heartrending: Her features have a malleable softness. In her moment of deepest despair, her face crumples—it is one of the most naked instances of ugly-crying in the movies, and Danes raises her hand to her face almost instinctively, to shield us from Juliet’s pain, and to afford her character some privacy.

When Romeo + Juliet was first released, many critics scoffed. I was one of them—I believe I referred to the film as “garish junk” in my review. But in the days after I filed that review, I kept thinking about the movie, about those young faces—about that ugly crying, about the way Romeo comes to Juliet on the night of their wedding, after he has killed Tybalt, and how the shelves in her bedroom are lined with her childhood dolls. I found myself longing to see the film again, and so I did. The second time, I got it. The fast cutting no longer annoyed me—once I went along with the current, the movie’s rhythms made complete sense. I realized that this was not only not a bad movie; it was one of the most beautiful film versions of Shakespeare I had ever seen. I recall friends complaining that DiCaprio and Danes had no idea what they were doing, that they had no mastery over the material. But that’s exactly the point: their Romeo + Juliet is one of pure feeling, a flame burning fast and clean. Movies are neither made nor received in a vacuum, and they have a life beyond what we can initially imagine for them. That’s why so many of today’s grownups who saw Romeo + Juliet as kids will never forget it. And that is how a play lives forever, reinvented again and again across the centuries, even as its bones and its heart remain intact.

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