Every now and then, I entertain the idea that I might be an intellectual. On those occasions, I seek out classic literature or foreign films, to test myself. British director Alex Cox’s newest DVD release, Revengers Tragedy, fits the bill in both categories.
The film is based on an early 17th century play commonly accepted to be written by Thomas Middleton. Middleton was a young peer of William Shakespeare’s, and most likely wrote the two long witches’ poems in Macbeth. Cox, you may recall, wrote and directed the cult classics Repo Man and Sid & Nancy. It’s not as unlikely a pairing as one might imagine.
Revengers Tragedy is sometimes called the world’s first black comedy. When it was first presented around 1607, it was dismissed as the “product of a diseased mind.” To be sure, it is a far cry from Shakespeare’s fawning, pro-monarchy stance. It’s easy to see why the story would appeal to someone of Cox’s anti-establishment sensibilities. It is almost brazenly anarchist. So soon after Elizabeth I’s repressive reign, critics were understandably uneasy with Middleton’s scathing caricatures of the nobility.
The plot is relatively simple: Vindici has returned home after ten years of self-imposed exile, to avenge the death of his wife, killed by the lascivious Duke. Ingratiating himself with Lussurioso, the eldest son of the Duke, he methodically makes his plans. When Lussurioso reveals his lust for Vindici’s sister Castiza, and the Duke’s youngest son Junior rapes the wife of the Duke’s political rival, Vindici goes off the rails. What is first a justifiable act of personal vengeance becomes outright insurrection. The movie’s tagline – “let the man who seeks revenge remember to dig two graves” – pretty much sums up the film’s ending, details of which I will refrain from disclosing.
In filming the story, Alex Cox has changed the original Tuscan setting to post-apocalyptic Liverpool, England, circa 2011. Somehow, the idea that Liverpool will be post-apocalyptic in the near future doesn’t seem much of a stretch. Set design and costuming for the film is deliberately haphazard, a sort of weird hybrid of 1980s thrift shops and Marvel comic books. Much of the original Jacobean dialogue is intact, but screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce has peppered the script with contemporary idiom, the funniest example of which is delivered by Lussurioso early on in the film: “Brother, thou hast fucked us royally.”
The all-British casting in this film is unexpected and brilliant. Christopher Eccleston initially plays Vindici as a man tortured by his memories, but as his revenge begins to take shape he shifts to an almost gleeful bloodlust laced heavily with pride. Carla Henry as his sister Castiza is virtuous and virginal, yet retains a sense of humor that prevents her character from being one-dimensional. Andrew Schofield is Carlo, protective and honest brother to Vindici and Castiza. Carlo’s single burst of righteous anger (against his mother) is electrifying.
On the other side of the subtlety coin are Derek Jacobi as the Duke, and Marc Warren as his son Supervacuo. Both characters are over-the-top caricatures and both actors play it high-camp – and it works beautifully. The only downside to Warren’s portrayal is that, with the timing of this DVD release, comparisons to Queer Eye For The Straight Guy’s Carson Kressley are inevitable. Considering that Jacobi’s inspiration for the Duke’s look was Karl Lagerfeld, I suppose it’s fitting that his “son” would resemble another self-styled fashion guru.
The Duke’s other sons are Justin Salinger (Ambitioso), Fraser Ayres (Spurio), Paul Reynolds (Junior) and, in an outstanding performance, Eddie Izzard as the eldest son and heir-apparent, Lussurioso. We are meant to hate this boastful, opportunistic lecher, but Izzard makes his lust sexy and his ambition more an honest - if somewhat premature - claim to his birthright than a power play. Certainly he is spoiled and self-centered, but there’s a bemused nobility about him that makes him that much more human. As Lussurioso’s motivations become clearer, Vindici’s become murkier, making the final revenge play truly tragic.
Despite its title and its themes of decadence, death and revenge, the film is a comedy. Visual jokes and verbal tricks abound. The space at the back of a limousine shared by the brothers becomes a metaphor for their power as it waxes and wanes. During one scene, when Ambitioso and Supervacuo are bringing a floral arrangement to a gravesite, the action is almost slapstick. The careful viewer will spot the exact moment when Vindici slides into anarchy – listen closely to the tune he hums as he brushes his teeth, for it appears earlier as a warning. The comedy and drama are successfully woven together under Cox’s tight direction – for every instance of silliness, there is a moment of dramatic tension.
The movie is not without flaws. The actors’ costumes are meant to be cartoonish, but the makeup goes beyond absurdity and far, far into distraction. Some of the camera work is also distracting – there is a shooting scene that suddenly and inexplicably warps into an unnecessarily jumpy videogame move, and several scenes that appear to have been shot from security cameras in black and white. A funeral pyre that is so comically CGI it would be embarrassing in an anime cartoon rounds off the disastrous cinematography. The best one can say about the soundtrack is that it is uneven. Provided by the appropriately anarchist Chumbawumba, parts of it are lovely, but the bulk of it is entirely too reminiscent of a low-budget 1970s porn movie.
All claims to intellect aside, I will admit I watched this DVD with the subtitles on. It was not the somewhat archaic English that was a problem (I am familiar with the grammar of the time, and besides, Middleton’s idiom is much nearer contemporary than Shakespeare’s) but the heavy Liverpudlian accent that stymied me. The biggest problem with this film was finding it in the first place. It had no American theatrical release, bar a few art-house premieres, and the DVD release has received almost no press. Perhaps the biggest tragedy here is that American audiences are perceived as too thick to “get” British films. With the recent popularity of indie films and filmmakers, it is hoped that films like Revengers Tragedy will one day have the success they deserve in American theaters. This weird little film is a gem.
Revengers Tragedy (rated R) is available on DVD at Amazon.com.
Directed by Alex Cox; starring Christopher Eccleston, Derek Jacobi, Eddie Izzard.
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
8.12.04 @ 2:25p
Juli, you made my English-major-who-doesn't-teach-so-I-analyze-pop-culture day. Nothing gets down and dirty like a British Renaissance tragedy--get a look at anything by Christopher Marlowe, for example. I'm definitely checking this out. Many thanks.
8.12.04 @ 3:01p
A revenge tragedy that's also funny? Crazy! Although I suppose that is the benefit of watching a play rather than reading it. So much can be done with actions and expressions, while on the page all you get are words. Usually starting with death and ending in mayhem, with a brief stop at lust along the way.
8.12.04 @ 4:45p
Black comedy's so hinky anyway, Sarah. You can easily miss the comedy in most of 'em (personally, I am of the opinion that Shaky Bill's Richard III is pretty funny) - but in this one you can't miss it. Once you see Derek Jacobi in ruby lipstick, it's pretty hard to take it too seriously.
Another interesting thing about a play on film - there are things you can do with special effects that you can't do on stage, but the reverse is also true. In this one, it's essential that the mother not recognize her son. On stage, this is done with masks. In the film version, they had to make Mama blind.
Henry - Marlowe's next on my list. I'm trying to get hold of the script for Edward II.
8.14.04 @ 9:02a
Wow. This sounds really cool. Pity that all the good niche video places around have closed; I'd love to see this.
8.14.04 @ 4:46p
I'm gonna go searching for this one. This is a great review.
8.15.04 @ 11:03a
Just an FYI: While I have been unable to find this rental anywhere, and in fact only found it for sale at Amazon and Borders, it IS available at Netflix.
8.24.04 @ 11:37p
I liked your phone version of this to me better.
8.25.04 @ 2:31a
You did? What was different? Or was I just waxing rhapsodical about Eddie's cute little ass again?