Review: Revengers Tragedy (2002)

William Shakespeare was not the only Elizabethan playwright of his time. While he remains by far the best known, there were plenty of others as there were many playhouses to fill in England during in the relatively calm reign of Elizabeth I. One of Shakespeare’s contemporaries was Thomas Middleton whose play Revengers Tragedy was first performed in 1606 and published in 1607. It feels and sounds much like a Shakespearean tragedy, perhaps on the magnitude of King Lear. As with King Lear, you are guaranteed to get plenty of 17th century old English dialog that is hard for our modern ears to parse. Many people die and wickedness abounds. The evil centers around an Italian duke, a man who gives little thought to murder and enjoys making sure those he orders murdered die in particularly gruesome ways. To make this story particularly vile, incest is its key component. The play faded into obscurity for a few centuries but took on new life in the 20th century, perhaps because the Shakespearean tragedies felt played out.

A movie version of Revengers Tragedy was released in 2002. This version retained the original dialog, but the story was moved to England’s near future. The movie even opens with a view of the international space station floating by, but quickly moves to what appears to be London where the city seems half in the grip of anarchy. In this slightly alternate version of reality, it seems that the British parliament has largely disappeared and the nobility wields excessive influence. The movie quickly focuses in on Vindici (Christopher Eccleston), who had the misfortune of having his bride and most of his wedding party poisoned during his wedding reception some years back. He is obsessed with revenging these murders.

For my wife, Christopher Eccleston was one of the primary reasons for renting the movie, as was Eddie Izzard, who plays the part of Lussurioso, the Duke’s oldest son. Eccleston happens to have played the tenth incarnation of Dr. Who in the popular and seemingly eternal BBC television series. Izzard also happens to be a comedian my wife and I saw perform in person recently. Perhaps the most compelling actor in this tragedy is Derek Jacobi, who plays the evil duke himself, a truly odious creature with a libido as big as his ego and with a tendency to debauch attractive young women.

How well did director Alex Cox do in moving this tragedy to 21st century London, which is full of violent street gangs yet who speak in a cockney accent? Most of the actors, including Izzard and Jacobi perform very well in their parts. Of the supporting cast, Margi Clarke as Vindici’s corrupt mother and Carla Henry as Vindici’s sister Castiza give notable performances. I was less enamored with Eccleston in the lead role, who comes across as very intense, more than a bit sick (he seems obsessed with playing with the skull of his dead wife) and is at times both annoying and puerile. A punk theme pervades the movie. The Duke’s brothers are all dressed punk and ride around London in shiny limousines and talk into their cell phones.

Mostly though, the revised setting is just a bit too incongruous to work with old English dialog. Fortunately, much of the acting is of high enough quality where you do not care too much. However, many parts of the movie are grating, like nails on a chalkboard. It is also at times hard to keep up with. You must listen carefully to translate the old English correctly, and pay close attention to understand the roles of the many ancillary characters. There are few in this movie that you can identify with, and many you can revile. In trying to modernize the movie to the present while keeping the original dialog, it feels stretched a bit too far.

If you are a big fan of any of the primary actors, you should probably see the movie. Otherwise, just find something else to rent as it is more likely to disappoint than please. One can applaud director Alex Cox for his audacity. Likely, it should never have been attempted. The movie would have been better if it had simply been shot as the 17th century Italian tragedy it was written to be.

3.0 stars on my 4.0 scale.

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