“Stars collide, worlds divide/What a pretty piece of flesh/You are a pretty piece of flesh” 

—One Inch Punch, ‘Pretty Piece of Flesh’

There are films that are difficult to write about. Sometimes this is because they present the viewer with unease, with pain or confusion – they are doors that open onto an expanse of complex emotion. Sometimes it is because they lack any such intricacy at all. They are dull and derivative – cold, ornate carousels that spin on and on without ever arriving at their destination.

Sometimes, however, it is because the film has had a profound and revelatory impact on the viewer – appearing so intimately bound to moments of personal change or emotion, that to explain its impact would be like trying to pin down one’s shadow. Films with this kind of bodily influence don’t occur often. Part of their enduring appeal is that they often function as ciphers for larger, more nebulous emotions that evade us at the time of watching. Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet (1996; released in the UK 25 years ago on 28 March 1997) is one such film for me. I refuse to be decent, measured or anything less than hyperbolic when talking about this film. It teems with an excess so unabashed and lavish that any criticism of the aesthetic realm is rendered immediately obsolete.

M And C

Courtesy of: Paramount Pictures Studios

For those not acquainted with Luhrmann’s Shakespearean adaptation, let us lay our scene. Luhrmann’s retelling takes place not in fair Verona (city of operatic excellence and quaint piazzas) but in a modern day simulacrum – so-called ‘Verona Beach’, which happens to be the wider environs of Mexico City. In a wonderful cinematic doubling from Luhrmann, the visual accents of Mexico City and its cultural aesthetic is interpreted in Shakespearean shorthand. The film is crowded with motifs of Mexican Catholicism (shrines, sacred hearts, doves), the inherent beauty and volatility of which foreground the Bard’s epic tale of love and death. Included too, are expressions of LA gangland, of America’s obsessions with guns, the parody of LA ‘whirlybird’ journalism and the hedonism of modern celebrity. Into this landscape, bursting with references, with witticisms, temptations and allusions, step our young lovers, themselves devoid of all inscribed meaning and without even a whiff of the corruption and duplicity that surrounds them. They are, as the One Inch Punch song wails in a quote of Shakespeare’s play, “pretty piece[s] of flesh”, whose fatal destiny is indivisible from their apparent youth and vitality. The repurposing of Shakespeare’s language is a vital element in the sustained pastiche of Luhrmann’s film, in which the rampant horniness and corporeal reality of the young characters is harnessed and capitalised upon for a distinctly sex-conscious nineties audience.

The first time I watched Romeo + Juliet,  I was 14 years old – a year older than Shakespeare’s Juliet, and deep in the throes of my own (albeit less glamorous) teenage angst. I wanted the things I consumed to be extreme and quixotic and superlative because that was how I felt inside, and film was something I could consume with a sanctioned kind of delirium and hunger. Romeo + Juliet was abject and hopeless but also irreverent and caustically defiant under Luhrmann’s eye – a binary that I felt nicely mirrored my own tumultuous state at the time. Here was a filmmaker who wasn’t afraid to mess with a sacred text, whose artistic vision swung between idolatry and pure sleaze. Call it what you want: a pavlovian response to beautiful, doomed heroes, a natural inclination for drama, a devotion to tragic tales told in garish dimensions. Whatever it was, I was hooked.


Courtesy of: Paramount Pictures Studios

Inevitably a film’s impact and importance changes in-step with those of the viewer’s; becoming dwarfed or else monolithic depending on the context. While my love for Luhrmann’s film remained unshakable as I grew older, I found that I now responded to it in novel and distinctive ways. Where I had once found myself overwhelmed by the double helpings of extreme tragedy and extreme beauty in Luhrmann’s adaptation – the fathomless rage on Romeo’s face as he avenges Mercutio’s death, the soaring joy of the wedding gospel choir, the suffocating saintliness of Juliet’s girlish bedroom – I now related more firmly to what I understood to be the crushing nihilism of Luhrmann’s work. Behind the seductive costuming, the wry commentary on Shakespearean aphorism by way of branding and billboards, the sultriness and excess of the visual landscape, beyond all this was a creeping dread that declared it all a façade and a distraction.

Luhrmann of course understood this, and duly rewarded us with one of the most iconic moments in the entire film – our introduction to Romeo via the obscenely moody Radiohead song Talk Show Host,

“I want to be someone else or I’ll explode/floating upon the surface for the birds/I’ll be waiting with a gun and pack of sandwiches and nothing … nothing”

Here was something that spoke more directly to my dawning twenties – a perfect balance between teenage lethargy, nihilism, pouty impertinence, and self-loathing. With age also, I discovered my reaction to Mercutio’s untimely death to be far more affecting than that of the famed lovers. The untethered violence and casual nature of his murder felt more in tune with the world I was beginning to know – in which random acts of violence and ill-fate registered as far more tragic than grander, abstract invocations of angst and desperation.


Courtesy of: Paramount Pictures Studios

At the end of the film, as the bodies of the two lovers are wheeled away in sterile body bags, their families in states of operatic grief beside them, it becomes difficult not to feel as though the tragic fate of the teenagers is subordinate to a larger feeling of helplessness and melancholia that pervades Luhrmann’s stage. Under the stormy sky, a lone helicopter circles like a vulture, sensing a new and bloody story to smear across the city. Indeed, the final words of the film (echoing those at the beginning)  are those of a news anchor delivering Shakespeare’s verse to camera:

A glooming peace this morning with it brings.
The sun for sorrow will not show his head.
Go hence to have more talk of these sad things.
Some shall be pardoned, and some punishèd.
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

Tapping into the then-nascent culture of the 24-hour news cycle, tabloid mania, and a bleak voyeurism, Luhrmann’s final scene embeds Shakespeare’s tale firmly in the 21st century.


Courtesy of: Paramount Pictures Studios

Romeo + Juliet is a mercurial piece of filmmaking that manages to sate a maelstrom of desires and emotions in the viewer. Hyperbolic in the extreme, unabashedly romantic, clever, sexy and painful, it was a vital souvenir of my teenage years and continues to thrill and confound 25 years after its release.

About The Author


Freelance film writer. Cinematic interests include (but are not limited to): women in film, women being bad in film, food in films, weird snacks that symbolise something else (a hot is never just a hot dog … or however the saying goes), great soundtracks in films, characters singing in their cars, films about drop-out music geeks that pretend to be teachers in order to live out their fantasy at a local rock gig (yes, School of Rock is in my top 5).