The costumes and everything else in the film--the photography, the music, above all Shakespeare's language--is so voluptuous, so sensuous. The stagecraft of the twinned death scenes is of course all contrivance; the friar's potion works with timing that is precisely wrong, and yet we forgive the manipulation because Shakespeare has been able to provide us with what is theoretically impossible, the experience of two young lovers each grieving the other's death. When the play was first staged in London, Holden writes, Shakespeare had the satisfaction "of seeing the groundlings moved to emotions far beyond anything before known in the theater." Why? Because of craft and art, yes, but also because Romeo and Juliet were not distant and august figures, not Caesars, Othellos or Macbeths, but a couple of kids in love, as everyone in the theater had known, and everyone in the theater had been.
The only actors in the film who seem completely at home, indeed, are Pete Postlethwaite , as Father Laurence, and Miriam Margolyes , as the Nurse. They know the words and the rhythm, the meaning and the music, and when they say something, we know what they've said. The other actors seem clueless, and Shakespeare's lines are either screamed or get all mushy. ( Brian Dennehy , as Romeo's father “Ted Montague,” would have been able to handle Shakespeare, but as nearly as I can recall he speaks not a single word in the entire movie--a victim, perhaps, of trims in post-production.) Not that there is much Shakespeare to be declaimed. The movie takes a “Shakespeare's greatest hits” approach, giving us about as much of the original as we'd find in “Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.” And even then it gets nervous and tarts things up. What can we make of a balcony scene that immediately leads to Romeo and Juliet falling into a swimming pool and reciting their best lines while treading water? I think back to the tender passion of the 1968 version, and I want to shout: “Romeo! Quick! Poison yourself!” The film's climactic scenes are more impressed by action-movie cliches than by the alleged source. Romeo pumps Tybalt full of lead while shouting incomprehensible lines. He tenderly undresses Juliet and they spend the night together. Shakespeare's death scene in the tomb lacked a dramatic payoff for Luhrmann, who has Juliet regain consciousness just as Romeo poisons himself, so that she can use her sweet alases while he can still hear them.