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Vengeance is postmodern
A region 2 DVD review of REVENGER'S TRAGEDY by Slarek
 

"Let the man who seeks revenge remember to dig two graves."

 

When Baz Luhmann updated William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to a modern, multi-cultural, alternate reality gangland America, the press coverage, reviews and public response were overwhelming. Last year Alex Cox took Thomas Middleton's* A Revenger's Tragedy and updated it to a futuristic, alternate-reality gangland Liverpool and the silence was deafening. There are a number of obvious reasons for this: Christopher Eccleston is not quite as big a babe magnet as Leonardo De Caprio; Baz Luhmann was hot property after the sleeper hit Strictly Ballroom and few people could even name Alex Cox's last three films; Luhmann employed all the visual and aural pazaz of music videos, while Cox took a more low key and understated approach. And you can't underestimate the power of a famous brand name – you may or may not have read any of Shakespeare's plays, but you've certainly heard of their author. But Thomas Middleton? And the very names Romeo and Juliet have transcended the original play to become part of our language. But A Revenger's Tragedy? Huh? On top of that, Luhmann's film had a big budget and king-sized American studio backing while Cox's had minimal funding and was distributed by British independent Metro Tartan. Of course some will tell you that the real reason is that Romeo + Juliet was a great movie and Revenger's Tragedy is a dud. I am here to tell you that this is nonsense of the lowest order. Revenger's Tragedy is not just a terrific adaptation of the play and Cox's finest work since his auspicious 1984 debut Repo Man, but also one of the most refreshingly inventive and enjoyable films to come out of anywhere last year.

The year is 2011, and in a post-apocalyptic Britain, southern England now lies underwater, while Liverpool is suffering under the weight of urban decay and gang warfare. Ten years after his wife was murdered on their wedding day, exiled outsider Vindici returns to the city, his intention being to exact his revenge on her killer, a lecherous, all-powerful city ruler known as The Duke. On arriving in Liverpool, Vindici re-unites with his estranged brother and sister, and on meeting and ingratiating himself with the Duke's eldest son and heir Lussurioso, he makes his first moves to bring down not just The Duke, but his entire family.

An update of a 1607 Jacobean tragi-comedy inevitably creates expectations of a classical approach, something Cox and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (whose previous credits include Welcome to Sarajevo, Hilary and Jackie and 24 Hour Party People) dispel wonderfully in two brief opening scenes. Vindici arrives in Liverpool as the only living passenger on a bus of death, which lumbers to a halt half-full of decaying bodies and digital flies in what looks almost like a deleted scene from Danny Boyle's post-apocalyptic thriller 28 Days Later. A short while later, Vindici is striding purposefully down the street when he is confronted by a local youth gang. His attempt to ignore them fails and in the space of ten seconds he has floored half of their number and scared the others off. Five minutes in and the film has flirted with horror, science fiction and action cinema. More crucially, Cox has effectively sketched the social situation and a key element of his central character. The arrival of the bus and broken street signs show a society and city in decay, the yellowed sky suggesting a drastic environmental change, the empty streets a severely reduced population, while the splendidly choreographed punch-up presents Vindici as a man of considerable strength and determination, and someone most definitely not to be messed with.

As with Romeo + Juliet, much of the original dialogue has retained, but thrown into the mix is the odd contemporary line that, while often comical, never seems inappropriate or out of place. After the wrong brother has been killed, for instance, two of the Duke's scheming sons vent their anger at the situation and the officer charged with handling the funeral, who has been waiting patiently for a tip. As one brother threatens the waiting officer in classic style, "Villain, I'll kill thee!" the officer disdainfully responds, "Fuck off, you cheap pair of bastards." However this reads, it works wonderfully on screen, especially in the company of a large and receptive audience. This approach is most amusingly effective in a brief aside in which two knaves have a heated and eventually violent discussion about possible Kennedy-style conspiracy theories surrounding an assassination, reflecting one of director Cox's own particular passions. These comic moments are balanced nicely with the drama and always seem in-keeping with the spirit of the original play, which had the nerve to name key characters Ambitioso, Spurio, Supervacuo and Sordido, and contained scenes every bit as absurd as anything Cox puts on screen (in one memorable sequence not included in the film, an officer is chased away by Supervacuo, who is brandishing the decapitated head of his dead brother and threatening to "brain thee with it!").

If Middleton's dialogue rarely approaches the poetry of Shakespeare on form and his plotting is less intricate, then many of the pleasures are nonetheless similar, particularly the use of language and the abandonment of modern-day moralities by characters who are driven by base emotions. There is also a wonderfully subversive streak running through the narrative that Cox gleefully builds on, resulting in some very nicely done digs at the public outpouring of grief over the death of Diana Spencer and the betrayal of working class principles by the New Labour of Tony Blair and his ilk (The Duke's main rival is played by Blair's father-in-law Anthony Booth, a character who, on rising to power, continues the oppressive policies of his predecessor – ring any bells?). The film notes that are included in the accompanying booklet suggest Cox wanted to take this much further, with a closing montage of the September 11th twin towers collapse in New York and Vindici, skull in hand, whispering "Revenge...Revenge..."

The narrative unfolds compellingly, with flashbacks to the event that triggered Vindici's lust for revenge worked smoothly into its structure, while individual scenes – such as Vindici testing his blind mother's integrity – are genuinely gripping in their use of dialogue, performance, camera placement and even ambient sound. There is a driving energy running throughout the film, a sense that everyone involved is pulling together and infused with the same sense of excitement about the material. This is also true of the music score, composed for the film by anarchist rock group Chumbawamba, previously best known for the ludicrously catchy Tubthumping single and for throwing a bucket of water on John Prescott when he was trying to show how in touch with the kids he was at the 1998 Brit Awards. They contribute to one of the film's nicest gags with a very recognisable riff that always (and only) accompanies a shot of Lussurioso riding in the back of the family limo with his brothers – every time the music and the shot appears, he is one brother fewer until he is left, rather contentedly, with the car to himself (a contentment that is shattered when Vindici pops cheerily and unexpectedly in to join him).

Even updated classical theatre demands strong performances, and Cox has assembled a fascinating cast here, employing what feels like every well known contemporary Liverpudlian character actor in the supporting roles, almost all of whom are on fine form. But it's with his leading players that he really scores. Christopher Eccleston is an absolute joy as Vindici, making every single word and gesture count, sometimes through the exaggerated movements of a man on the edge and often with extraordinary and sudden metamorphoses from one emotion or intention to another. Approaching the Duke with the intention of stabbing him, for example, he is caught out by the sudden appearance of bodyguards and the Duke's recognition of him as a man who procured a woman for his son, a service he now requests for himself – Eccleston's fiery anger in a second breaks into the widest of accommodating smiles, as an opportunity for more appropriate vengeance unexpectedly registers. Even his determined and purposeful stride exerts a force that feels at times almost unstoppable. Indeed, it is Eccleston's animated immersion into the role that has repeatedly sent me back to key sequences of the film.

As the Duke's son and heir Lussurioso, comedian turned actor Eddie Izzard for the first time shakes off the impression that he is playing, well, Eddie Izzard. His ambition, seriousness and contempt for his oafish brothers is nicely conveyed, and the scenes between him and Eccleston have a very real spark about them. As The Duke, Derek Jacobi has almost a secondary role, and with his long white hair and dark glasses sometimes seems coldly detached from the narrative, but that's the nature of the character and when he has to he explodes into life he sometimes radiates a genuine aura of power and malice. Many of the supporting players, including familiar faces Andrew Schofield and Margi Clarke, also make their mark, and my only real reservation is the presentation of Lussurioso's brothers, a mixture of mad facial piercing and cartoonish campness that results in crude one-dimensional characters who are designed, it would seem, for us to cheer for the deaths of without moral complication. Oh, and that's Alex Cox himself as The Duke's chauffeur.

Revenger's Tragedy was one of may favourite films of last year and repeated DVD viewings have failed to alter that view a fraction. It seems ludicrous that when terrible Hollywood movies can find a sizeable audience and a wide cinema release, one of the best British films in years remains ridiculously unseen in the very country in which it was made. Well now it's out on DVD there's no excuse – hunt it out and revel in the past glories of Thomas Middleton, and the present ones of Alex Cox and his team.

sound and vision

How times change. Once there was an extreme nervousness that accompanied the mere placing of a Tartan disk in the DVD tray – memories of Ringu, Hard Boiled and Audition still haunt me – but in recent times we have seen some first rate transfers from the company, and in terms of picture this is another example of the quality we have come to expect from the born-again Tartan. There is some minor film grain evident, but otherwise it is almost fault free – crisp, with excellent colour rendition, near-perfect contrast and rock-solid black levels. A low budget enterprise this may have been, but with Len Gowing's splendid lighting and Cecilia Montiel's lively production design reproduced so well here, it never looks it.

Oh, if ever a film needed a 5.1 soundtrack and doesn't get it, then Revenger's Tragedy is it. The use of ambient and atmospheric sound and Cumbawamba's moody, sometimes driving score need to fill the room, not be spread across the front sound stage, bypassing the might of the subwoofer. It's a decent mix, nonetheless, and dialogue in particular is always clear (a necessity considering its nature). If you have a decent DSP mode on your amp, then my advice is to kick it in, as the difference is startling – music fills the room, and bass notes, punches and thunder reverberate through your chest. Of course, it should have done this anyway, and a proper 5.1 mix is still sorely missed.

extra features

What I really wanted to see here was a cast and crew commentary, but I always want that. There are extras, but they are a little thin.

Seeking Revenge: On-Set Documentary is 16:9 anamorphic and Dolby 2.0 and not the in-depth look at the making of the film that this title suggests, but a pretty standard, 10 minute EPK. It combines clips of the film with shots of the cast and crew at work and brief interviews with director Cox, producer Tod Davies and key members of the cast. Expected communal back-slapping aside, this still gives a reasonable intro to the production, but more depth would have been welcome. And the interview with Cox is out of focus.

Rehearsal Footage is a virtually formless collection of 16:9 DV footage of the actors rehearsing for three scenes of the shoot, plus some moments of Cox working with his cast and crew. Lack of structure aside, it's still pretty interesting for the midsection showing the shooting of the opening fight sequence, but again, more would have been nice, as would some commentary on what we do have.

The Original Theatrical Trailer is non-anamorphic 16:9 and Dolby 2.0 and runs for 1 minute 33 seconds. Interestingly, it contains only a couple of single words of dialogue, possibly reflecting a fear on the part of the distributor that a potential audience would be frightened off by Jacobean language (this same trick is used a lot by American distributors when handling foreign language films).

Finally we have the World Cinema Trailer Reel, which has trailers for other Tartan releases, L.I.E., Safe, Ivansxtc, Secretary, My Kingdom and Irreversible. These are in a variety of aspect ratios, with only Ivansxtc and Irreversible being anamorphic.

summary

This is the film I have been waiting for Cox to make for years. Having launched his career so auspiciously with Repo Man and followed it up so well with Sid and Nancy, I found it hard to believe that Straight to Hell and Walker were to be a signpost for all future Cox projects. For his first UK-shot film (that alone seems insane) Cox has found the right material, the right screenwriter and the right cast for his quirky but considerable talent, and has directed one of the most enjoyable films of last year, as well as one with a genuine national and local identity. Tartan's DVD lacks much in the way of extras, and sorely needs a 5.1 sound mix, but I can't fault the picture quality and that alone makes this worth buying. Doubtless the film will have its detractors, but quite frankly I care not – a poxxe upon them all!

 


* Actually the play is credited to Cyril Tournier but it's generally agreed that Middleton was the real author.

Revenger's Tragedy

UK 2002
106 mins
director
Alex Cox
starring
Christopher Eccleston
Eddie Izzard
Derek Jacobi
Diana Quick
Andrew Schofield
Anthony Booth
Margi Clarke

DVD details
region 2
video
1.77:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
languages
English
subtitles
English for the hard of hearing
extras
On-set documentary
Rehearsal footage
Trailers
distributor
Tartan
release date
Out now
review posted
15 February 2004

See all of Slarek's reviews