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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Revengers Tragedy


I was an engineering major in college. This may explain why I had no idea there was a defined sub-genre of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama known as a revenge play. Hamlet is the best-known revenge play, with its theme of the son seeking vengeance for his father's death and eventually leading to the death of most of the characters directly and peripherally involved in the plot. But it turns out that Shakespeare was just an old softie when compared with the dramatists who concentrated on this form of tragedy in the early 1600's.

One of the big names in the field was Thomas Middleton. Many scholars now think that Middleton collaborated with Shakespeare on some plays, helping to write some scenes and revising others to get to the forms in which we now know them. But one of Middleton's juiciest works may be a play entitled The Revenger's Tragedy. It was published anonymously when it came out in 1606 and later was attributed to Cyril Tourneur. The people who study these things say the style is unmistakably Middleton's and he now tends to get the credit.

The Wikipedia listing for the play states that the work "was ignored for many years and viewed by some critics as the product of a diseased mind." Fast forward a few hundred years and Alex Cox enters the picture. Cox wrote and directed cult favorites such as Repo Man and Sid And Nancy. Supposedly he tripped across the text of the Middleton play and decided it was his kind of story. But of course, he would want to update the play with his punk sensibility and defiance of conventional genre categorization.

The 2004 DVD release of the 2002 film contains a commentary track, a "making of" documentary, and four extended interviews with people involved with the film (including a professor of English Literature at Oxford). These let me figure out that Cox has taken some serious liberties with the original work. He has introduced new characters, tacked on an ending not found in the play, and had a writer create a completely new script. The screenplay mixes Middleton's tongue-twisting 1600's language with modern slang and profanities. Since I'm not familiar with the original, it's easy for me to review the film as its own entity, rather than having to make a mental comparison with the source material.

Cox has set the story in the near future of Liverpool, England (He made the film on location in the city and employed all local labor for the crew. Most of the actors have an association with the city as well.) An establishing shot opens with a satellite orbiting a strangely altered Earth. We see the UK decimated and missing large chunks of land, while France seems to be gone completely. We move down to a rubble-filled, rundown street. A city bus comes around a corner and slowly crashes into a derelict car in the middle of the street. The camera enters the bus and we see that everybody on board, including the driver, is dead. Flies buzz over the bloody corpses. Then a single survivor raises his head, gets his bearings, and jumps off the bus. Thus the dramatic entrance of the main avenging character, Vindici (All Middleton's character names are Latin/Italian references to their characters.)

Unfortunately this memorable scene is never linked to anything else in the film and the mystery of the bus and its occupants (as well as the perfect entrance around a corner while being driven by a dead man) is never explained. Cox admits in a featurette that the scene was shot well before the rest of the movie as a standalone piece to help get funding for the picture. The visual impact and style is so strong, I'm mostly willing to let the practical questions slide.

We quickly learn that Vindici is out for revenge upon the cruel ruler of the community -- the Duke. The Duke killed Vindici's new wife ten years earlier on their wedding day. Unlike Hamlet, Vindici never hesitates or questions his moral justification. He is a completely driven man and nothing is going to stand in the way of his vengeance.

During the course of events, we are treated to corrupt government leaders, corrupt civil servants, corrupt familial relationships, rape, prostitution, incest, murder, random acts of violence, and some foosball games. I said it was juicy!

The movie is not designed to work as an easy piece of passive viewing entertainment. The language is thick and filled with old English words and phrasings that have long passed out of common usage. Add in the heavy English accents and you may find yourself turning on the subtitles for assistance. Scenes and character conversations often end with rhymed couplets in a Shakespearean fashion. But just when you think you are settling in to the flow of the language, you are yanked back to modern times with a contemporary slang term or greeting.

Cox's setting feels slightly science fiction (think Blade Runner or Mad Max or Max Headroom). The downtrodden masses watch and are watched over by giant video monitors. Cox uses three different film techniques to emphasize different points of view, mixing digital video with handheld film with classic widescreen set pieces. Costumes, sets, and makeup are a hodge-podge of found elements, all taken to over-the-top extremes. Derek Jacobi as the Duke has a ghost-white face and a dark lipstick enhanced mouth. The Duke's sons include one who dresses like a wanna-be urban cowboy/pimp and another who is extravagantly and exaggeratedly gay. The others exhibit various forms of punk/thug accoutrements, such as facial piercings and loud tattoos.

The movie refuses to present a consistent take on the proceedings either. Some scenes are played absolutely straight with dramatic intensity. Others are presented with a wink at the camera and an obvious comedic bent. Others are set up for shock horror/thriller surprises to unsettle the audience. While not everything works perfectly, one can't help but remain fascinated and drawn in to Cox's world. The plot is so astonishing in its collection of unredeemable acts and contemptible characters that you can't wait to see the next revelation. It's like a soap opera on methamphetamines. And the visual richness keeps your eyes fixed on the screen.

Most of the leads are excellent in their portrayals. Christopher Eccleston as Vindici is a raging force, straddling the line between cold-blooded determination and outright madness. Eddie Izzard as the eldest son and next in line as ruler is very strong, making his character a real person when it would have been easy to play a stereotype villain. The three younger brothers are caricatures as written and the actors playing them chew every piece of scenery in sight. I thought it worked within the context, but some people will be turned off by the clownlike performances.

A few of the supporting actors are not up to snuff. Carla Henry as Castiza gives a particularly lifeless performance and Margi Clarke as her mother plays it too broadly. Some mention should be made of the lovely Sophie Dahl as Imogen. Cox envisions her as a Princess Diana analog and Dahl carries it off beautifully, using her large doe-like eyes to make up for a lack of dialog.

This is a big, bold and audacious movie from a director who refuses to fit his work into pigeonholes. It is not a general audience crowd pleaser, but rewards those who are up for an experiment and something seldom seen. Fans of David Lynch should make the crossover to Cox easily. One thing is for sure... After watching this, you'll yawn at the manufactured dramatics of battling housemates on your favorite reality TV show!

The swearing, blood, and violence in the film make it inappropriate for small children to be in the room. There is simulated sex, but no nudity. Mature teenagers should eat this stuff up. It might give them an increased interest in English literature.

2 Comments:

At 4:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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