Baz Luhrmann has used many very effective film techniques in transforming the Mantua scene from text to screen. Through the choice of specific setting, music and camera techniques, he has emphasised the role of fate and haste in the lovers’ tragedy. The setting of Mantua in a barren, desert environment reinforces the isolation of Romeo’s banishment. With the harsh, unrelenting sun engulfing the scene with a strong orange light, it provides a stark contrast to earlier scenes where the love between Romeo and Juliet blossomed.
The desert is a sterile environment, where in the absence of water, life ceases to exist.
Baz Luhrmann has effectively employed the visual juxtaposition of water and desert to convey Romeo’s isolation. Even the caravans, a temporary residence, are situated far apart. But the desert does not only convey a literal setting, it is also symbolic of Romeo’s emotional desert. Without Juliet, Romeo’s life is barren and sterile. This metaphorical setting highlights the depth and true love between Romeo and Juliet.
Romeo’s love for Juliet is not an infatuation, but rather having known her, his life becomes meaningless without her.
We see Romeo writing in his isolation, and his emotions are clearly conveyed through the use of voice-over monologue. Him half mouthing the words makes what he is writing more natural and realistic. Yet the words themselves are ominous and foreshadowing death, where Romeo dreamt that he had died and yet been revived by Juliet. These innocent dreams are so close to the truth that it builds up tension in the film.
Music and sound effects play a vital role in conveying emotions and affecting how audiences react to visual images. Baz Luhrmann uses music in the scene to further highlight Romeo’s isolation and build up tension.
The scene begins with Romeo’s theme music, a haunting, single-note melody. The music reverberates around the empty desert to emphasis the isolation. This music also takes the audience back to when we were first introduced to Romeo, in a similar melancholy mood as an unrequited lover. We come to associate this music with loneliness, despair and rejection. The music intensifies to a crescendo as another character, Balthasar, approaches the scene. It builds up to a climax for the fateful news, yet the scene is silent as Romeo receives the misinformed news.
The silence allows Romeo to absorb the revelations, yet the audience is drawn into the action with this dramatic irony and we watch in anguish at the consequences of Balthasar’s mistake. The music changes again near the end of the scene, where it becomes a throbbing, relentless pulse. The strong beat forewarns of the actions that are going to take place, and builds up tension in the audience. The scene begins with the camera slowly sweeping across the desert and the next shot is a close-up focus on Romeo’s face. This close-up shot is very important as it reveals many small details.
We are able to clearly identify with Romeo’s emotions, but more importantly, we are reminded by the scar and ring of dominating issues in the film. The scar is a remnant of Romeo’s fight with Tybalt and symbolises the violence and hatred in Verona. Violence and social decay is one of the main ideas explored by Baz Luhrmann in the film and the scar shows that even in isolation, Romeo can never completely escape from the realities of Verona society. This violence is further reinforced by the fleeting image of Romeo reaching for his gun as he sees the approaching car.
Violence is so predominant and there is such mistrust in the society that weapons are used without a thought. The other important element seen in this close-up shot is the chain around Romeo’s neck, given to him by Juliet with her crucifix and her wedding ring. This reminds us of their love and Romeo’s connection with Juliet even in banishment. Yet this image is ironic in that once again, there is the juxtaposition of opposites, where the chain symbolises the love between Romeo and Juliet, but the scar, symbolic of the hatred between the families, forbids and restrains this love.
This image relates to the foundations of the tragedy, where love is forbidden because of the feud. There is a dramatic change in mood as Romeo is told of the terrible news, and the camera reflects this with a high-angle shot of Romeo collapsed on the ground. This angle from above emphasises his vulnerability and despair. He is pushed to the lowest and as his body is silhouetted against the setting sun, Romeo faces a life of hopelessness without Juliet.
The long angle shot afterwards show Romeo and Balthasar as tiny figures in a vast expanse of desert and lead to the idea of fate in the tragedy. It seems almost as if Romeo is overpowered by external forces, a small puppet on a large stage where he has no control over events. The central idea of fate is further reinforced by Romeo treading over the “urgent” telegram. The audience sees clearly how close the film was to a happy ending and fate is encapsulated by the final dramatic irony, where the mailman watches Romeo speeding off in haste, moments too late.
The terrible timing of events show haste to also be a deciding factor in the chain of events, with the first shot of Balthasar overtaking the mail-van in his haste to reach Romeo and ending with Romeo speeding off, leaving the consequential telegram behind. Baz Luhrmann’s has very successfully conveyed the ideas in the Shakespearean text through the use of effective film techniques. His choice of a desert environment, use of camera angles and music reinforces the role of fate and haste in the tragedy and reminds us that the juxtaposition of love and violence is never far away.