Compare how Zeffirelli and Luhrman direct the ending of Romeo and Juliet
William Shakespeare’s great tragedy Romeo and Juliet was written around 1595. For hundreds of years it was an incredibly popular theatrical performance, staged in thousands of theatres across world. However, in the last century improvements in technology have meant that the popularity of theatre has fallen dramatically as a result of the success of cinema. A world of possibilities was created with the breakthrough of cinema; no longer was the setting confined to one stage and the creativity of the set designers, people could be taken around the world and back whilst sitting in their seats.
Endless different techniques could be used to provoke emotions in the audience with the variation of shot angles and distances, not to mention the quality of sounds and music and the incredible special effects that could be achieved as technology progressed ever further. It was inevitable that Shakespeare’s enduring, classic yet tragic love story of “star-crossed lovers” Romeo and Juliet would one day make it up onto the big screen. In fact there have been many attempts to recreate the play as a film.
Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrman are two of the most successful director’s to date to have achieved this, despite the huge contrasts between the films’ target audiences, setting and the thirty year gap between the release dates. In 1968 the Florentine director Franco Zeffirelli released his version of Romeo and Juliet. The film was critically acclaimed and won four Academy Award nominations and two Oscars for Best Cinematography and Costume Design. Zeffirelli took the gamble of filling the two lead roles with two young unknown and fresh-faced teenage actors; Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussy who proved incredibly popular.
The film appealed to the youthful, counter-cultural generation of the late 60s with its realism, the passion of the lovers, the brief nudity of the couple, and its then contemporary feel. Although there were many cuts to Shakespeare’s original dialogue, Zeffirelli kept his version of the film as close to the original play as possible. It was filmed on location in Italy, keeping with the medieval Verona setting Shakespeare had intended and the costumes and mannerisms of the characters are as they would have been in Shakespeare’s time, almost as if Zeffirelli aimed to produce a filmed production of the play.
Just under thirty years later, in 1996, Baz Luhrman released his interpretation of Shakespeare’s great love story; William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. In complete contrast to the Zeffirelli version, he remodelled the play in a new radical, MTV-style accompanied by a predominantly rock soundtrack, starring the already accomplished and incredibly popular Leonard DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the young lovers. It was filmed in vibrant, colourful Mexico City, but set in late twentieth century Verona. Luhrman used this unconventional style as a way of attracting a younger audience.
The innovative urban backdrop and frequent ‘gangster’ style gun fights are appealing to this generation and the modern day setting allows them to relate to the events of the events of the film with a better understanding. Almost the only aspect of the play that Luhrman does not modernise or change to some degree is Shakespeare’s language, as if to keep the genius and soul of Shakespeare’s writing ability alive in the film. However, substantial amounts of the script have been cut out in order to make the plot less complex and the film more intense and interesting for the benefit of the younger target audience.
Clearly, the contrasting styles of Luhrman’s and Zeffirelli’s films have ensured that there are many differences between the ways the two directors have approached the ending of their version of the film Romeo and Juliet. However, given that both films have been based on the same play, it is not surprising that they have also used many similar methods of directing to provoke emotions in the viewers. The scene that is common to both films and shall serve as the start of the ending, that I will critically compare the directing of, will be the point when Romeo reaches the church after being informed of Juliet’s ‘death’.
In Luhrman’s film, Romeo enters the church after an extremely dramatic and intense gun fight with the police. With the closure of the church door all noises stop dead. No longer can the police sirens, the helicopter engines or the loud, pounding music be heard. The only sound is that of Romeo’s breathing. This sudden change to almost complete silence ensures the swift change in atmosphere from one of intense speed and chaos to one of apprehension and desperation. Luhrman also uses the length and distance of shots and the effects of lighting to assist this change.
The shots become longer in order to decrease the pace of the film, and they are almost always focusing on Romeo’s face. Close-ups of his expression are used to emphasise his emotions as he realises that he may soon see Juliet dead. The flashing police lights and helicopter search lights suddenly give way to the darkness of the hall. This also exaggerates the change in atmosphere. Luhrman uses the contrast in atmospheres to emphasise the desperation felt by Romeo. The close-ups of his face and the absence of light and sound help the viewer to identify with Romeo as he anticipates what is behind the church door.
In comparison, the atmosphere at Romeo’s arrival at the church in Zeffirelli’s film is not exaggerated using a sudden change from a contrasting atmosphere. It is already extremely dark and quiet and the shots are of a reasonable length. Like Luhrman, Zeffirelli has used the absence of light and sound to create an atmosphere of desperation and suspense. This helps the viewer to identify with Romeo’s feelings. The contrast between the magnificent, bright, modern, monumental church that Luhrman sets his ending in, and the dank, dark eerie catacomb in Zeffirelli’s ending demonstrates how differently Shakespeare’s play can be interpreted.
It also reflects the contrast between the settings throughout the whole of both films. Luhrman uses a bright, modern, urban setting as a method of attracting the youthful audience of the late ’90s, who find the bright lights and excitement of the city particularly appealing. Zeffirelli, on the other hand, keeps as close to Shakespeare’s intended setting as possible. His aim was to recreate the magic of the theatrical performance of Romeo and Juliet as a film, exposing as many people in the world as possible to the genius of Shakespeare in his original context.
Candles and neon lit crucifixes fill the monumental building in Luhrman’s film. The candles produce a red light that the viewers may subconsciously associate with the things the colour red represents: anger, death, love and passion. The crucifixes force the viewer to consider religion, a figure commonly associated with the contrasting ideas of love and hate, good and evil. The whole idea of Romeo and Juliet is to outline the contrasts and similarities between love and hate, and how these emotions alone can be fatal.
The crucifixes and red light produced by the candles will enhance this idea at this crucial point in the film, and may make the message of the film stronger in the viewer’s memory. In contrast, covered dead bodies of Juliet’s ancestors fill Zeffirelli’s catacomb. The bodies remind the viewers of the deaths of the ‘star-crossed lovers’ that have been foretold in the prologue at the beginning of the film, and so build a feeling of tension and apprehension in the audience as they anticipate the death’s of the two lovers. Despite the contrasts on the settings, the predominant colour in both film’s endings is blue.
This colour symbolises the tragedy and sadness of the situation and enhances the unhappy atmosphere in the audience. A build up in the volume and the intensity of the music is used by both directors to mirror the build up of emotion in Romeo as he approaches Juliet. In Luhrman’s film, the orchestral music starts softly as Romeo leaves the small hall, with only a few instruments playing, but as he continues down the aisle of the church, more and more instruments begin playing until the music finally climaxes when Romeo reaches Juliet.
This musical build up provokes the viewer to react to the emotional state of Romeo. It may force the viewer to feel a similar emotional build up to Romeo as he experiences anger, heartbreaking grief and many other emotions at the realisation of Juliet’s ‘death’. There are many similarities between Luhrman’s death scene and a Christian marriage ceremony. For example, Romeo walks slowly down the aisle of the church, as a bride would do, to reach Juliet. She is dressed in what appears to be a white wedding dress and Romeo puts onto her finger her wedding ring.
Luhrman uses these similarities to emphasise to the viewer the strength of the love between the young couple, and to exaggerate the point that their love was the reason for their deaths. This demonstrates to the viewer the strength of the character’s feelings for one another helping the viewer to identify with the great sense of loss felt by both Romeo and Juliet when they realise there partner is dead. Both Zeffirelli and Luhrman use close-ups of the young lovers once Romeo has reached Juliet’s death bed to emphasise the closeness and affection between the couple.
The close-ups also emphasise the emotions felt by the living lover. The close-ups of Romeo or Juliet’s expression force the viewer to focus on the emotions of grief and regret expressed in their faces, and the closeness of the shot intensifies the impact it has on the viewer. Luhrman also uses close-ups of the wedding ring that Romeo gives Juliet to signify the importance of the action. This focus on the symbol of marriage reminds the viewer of the love between the couple and how tragic the situation is, provoking a feeling of sadness and regret in the viewer.
All of Luhrman’s close-ups are far closer to the object in focus than Zeffirelli’s close-ups. When Zeffirelli released his film, cinema was still quite a new discovery, and it wasn’t necessary to exaggerate film techniques extensively in order to ensure a reaction from the audience. However, Luhrman’s viewers had been far more exposed to cinema and so required more intense atmospheres and emotions to keep them interested in the film. Luhrman had to be more adventurous and ambitious to trigger similar reactions in the viewers to the reactions Zeffirelli’s film will have provoked when it was released.
This is part of the reason why Luhrman’s close-ups are so much closer, as they intensify the reaction in the audience. The other part of the reason is to do with the effort Zeffirelli made to try and keep with the theatrical tradition of Shakespeare’s play. It is not possible to have close ups in theatre and extremely close close-ups would take the film further away from its theatrical resemblances, which is why even when Zeffirelli does use close-ups, the shots are more complex than Luhrman’s close-ups.
Zeffirelli’s intention to keep his film similar to Shakespeare’s play explains why he edits far less of the play’s original scripture than Luhrman to the extent that Zeffirelli’s ending is almost twice the length of Luhrman’s ending. Both directors edit out the scene with Paris’s murder as it over complicates the ending and so as to shorten the length of the film for the proposed target audiences. Substantial amounts of the script have been cut out or altered in Luhrman’s film to simplify it and make it more intense and interesting for the benefit of the younger target audience.
Luhrman does not include the friar’s return to the church, whereas Zeffirelli does, because it would have diluted the intense atmosphere Luhrman was trying to create revolving around Juliet’s grief. Possibly the piece of editing that had the greatest impact on Luhrman’s film is alteration of the order in which Romeo’s final words ‘thus with a kiss I die’ are spoken. Luhrman has altered the plot slightly so that Juliet wakes up as Romeo drinks the poison, just before he dies.
Juliet then finds there is no poison left in the bottle and kisses Romeos lips hoping that some of the poison is still there. This is the point at which Romeo utters his last words ‘Thus with a kiss I die’; whereas in the original scripture and the Zeffirelli version these words are spoken before Juliet has even begun to wake up. This alteration in the plot is used by Luhrman to increase the viewer’s frustration as they are shown how narrowly missed a happy ending was missed by, and this serves to increase the tragedy of the film.
Luhrman directs Romeo’s death extremely cleverly to exemplify the feeling of frustration created in the viewer. Close-ups of Juliet’s hands and fingers twitching as she begins to stir inform the viewer that Juliet is waking up, but leave Romeo oblivious to this fact. The close-ups signify the importance of the actions, and a small sense of hope is created in the viewer, who is suddenly presented with the possibility of Juliet waking up and the couple living happily ever after.
However, the timing of the dramatic shot of just Juliet’s eyes as she wakes just as Romeo swallows the poison magnifies the frustration felt by the viewer. The contrast between the sense of hope created and its sudden dismissal only exaggerates the frustration ever further. Luhrman plays with the viewer’s feelings in this way to increase the strength of the emotions they experience for the young couple, but also to increase their emotional involvement and interest in the film. Luhrman and Zeffirelli use different methods to increase the atmosphere of tension before Juliet’s suicide.
Luhrman uses the absence of sound and the effects of close-ups and slow motion to increase the tension surrounding Juliet’s death. After Romeo’s death, there is no non-diagetic sound for a period of almost two minutes. The only noises to break the silence are those of Juliet crying and her loading Romeo’s gun. The silence surrounding these noises emphasise the importance of the actions that create them. Juliet’s crying shows her grief and despair at the loss of her husband and the audience, who are forced to focus on this sound, will empathise with her grief.
Luhrman uses close-ups and slow-motion of the movement of the gun to emphasise the significance of the weapon and the action. The slow motion shots show the viewer the formation of the plan, in Juliet’s mind, to kill herself. An atmosphere of tension and suspense is created with the emphasis of the sound of the gun being loaded and the slow-motion movement of Juliet bringing the gun to her head as the audience anticipate her death. The sudden loud sound of the gun shot, although it is expected, may startle the viewer.
Luhrman uses a bird’s eye view of the dead couple which gives the impression looking down on them from a heavenly perspective, interspersed with flashbacks of the happiest moments shared between Romeo and Juliet as a way of reminding the audience that the two lovers died because of their love for one another. The music used in the background is not solemn, as you would expect after the death of two people, but joyous which shows the viewer that Romeo and Juliet are happy to finally be together, that they would much prefer to be together in death than alive but apart.