Saturday, 5 August 2017

Revengers Tragedy (2002)

Alex Cox's cinematic adaptation of The Revenger's Tragedy, the 1606 Jacobean revenge tragedy once attributed to Cyril Tourneur but now commonly accepted to be by Brian Middleton, updates the action from the 17th century Italian court to a freakish, post-apocalyptic 2011 version of Liverpool and loses the apostrophe along the way. It's a bold and experimental offering - part Luhrmann's take on Romeo and Juliet, part Jarman and, most eccentrically of all thanks to Frank Cottrell Boyce's script, part Brookside ("Villain! I'll kill thee!" wail Marc Warren and Justin Salinger's conspiratorial brothers as one of their many plans are foiled, "Fuck off, ya cheap pair o'bastards" Stephen Graham's retorts in full scally, immune to their grandiose threats) - that succeeds thanks to Christopher Eccleston's fine performance as the vengeful and anarchic malcontent Vindici, and the decadent charm of Eddie Izzard's Lussurioso, heir to Derek Jacobi's lip smacking villain, the Duke: the Shakespearean knight resplendent in a funereal suit, silver ponytail, designer shades, pancake and excessive lippy!

When asked why he mixed things up so, Cox said; "To emphasize, in a filmic way, the absolute absence of change!  The injustices of the early 17th century are those of the early 21st.  Corrupt and powerful forces oppress the poor and the meek.  The poor rise up.  They are suppressed.  And a younger generation of poor, angrier and with access to weapons, rises up to take revenge...  Just as US foreign policy in Central America was the same in 1856 as in 1986, when we made Walker.  The anachronisms weren't a stunt: they were an inevitable consequence of the narrative" So, when Cox and Cottrell Boyce depict the death of the wife of Antonio, Duke's rival (a comely yet pure younger bride played by Sophie Dahl) they deliberately recall to mind the carpet of flowers and tributes and the mass outpouring of grief that followed the death of Princess Diana, whilst two pub bores discuss the possibility of a rogue bullet in her demise that brings to mind the conspiracy theories surrounding JFK's assassination. This may be a 17th century tale, but the film is committed to pointing out that the themes and events remain both original and utterly contemporary. 

The film opens with Eccleston's Vindici arriving back home from a self imposed exile on board not a death ship, like Nosferatu, but a death bus. It appears that the bus has been ambushed on entering this violent and dangerous city, killing all occupants bar the fortunate Vindici. It soon becomes clear though that Vindici is a man who has literally come to Liverpool from death itself.  Armed only with a knife and the decaying skull of his bride, poisoned by the Duke on their wedding day for daring to spurn his sexual advances, Vindici longs for the eponymous revenge of the piece from Jacobi's silver haired old villain and reunites with his family to achieve this ambition. With both Cox and Cottrell Boyce being natives of Merseyside, they have great fun transposing the events of the play to their Mad Max style vision of a futuristic, post industrial, corrupt and blighted Liverpool. Their tale is set in a United Kingdom whose southern region had been destroyed by natural disaster (sadly not convincingly explained enough in the finished product, though to know it makes more sense of the young savages who roam the city threatening anyone they suspect of being 'cockney' - a past-time they'll soon regret when challenging Vindici) and it is delightfully embraced by a local crew consisting of production designers Cecilia Montiel and Remi Vaughan-Richards, costumer Monica Aslanian, makeup designer Lesley Brennan and cinematographer Len Gowing. Liverpool itself is a character in the film, when Izzard's Lussurioso stands before doors which bear a logo reminiscent of Imperial Rome, albeit S.P.Q.L (Senatus Populusque Liverpudliensis) for Liverpool as opposed to the more traditional S.P.Q.R for the ancient empire, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was a neat touch from the production designer, but it's not: that very legend really is on the door of Liverpool's spectacular St George's Hall. 

With a score by Chumbawamba and both a post punk and a late '90s clubbing sensibility, Revengers Tragedy is very much a film of its time. A full on tale of bloodlust that tackles both incest and necrophilia, some audiences may be turned off; either by its overblown camp and flamboyancy, its refusal to polish its own rough edges or by its self conscious glee in the amateur (less of the Brookside alumni would have helped as Michael Starke, for example, seems especially out of place and out of his depth), but the whole pell-mell affair is pitched with such breathtakingly frenetic commitment that it's hard not to be swept up by it. Just be warned though that, like revenge itself, it may in conclusion somehow leave you a little disappointed.

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