Revenge is... Awesome, Actually

by Sonia Mitchell

Sonia reviews the film Revengers Tragedy.
I was as surprised as anyone would be when a film I’d never heard of went straight onto my list of best films ever, particularly given that it features Christopher Ecclestone soliloquising to a skull that isn’t Yorick’s, Eddie Izzard being out-camped by Marc Warren and a soundtrack by Chumbawumba. Perhaps these reasons contributed to the film’s lack of fame, or perhaps fate is just very unfair. Because Revengers Tragedy is amazing. The film pretty much spoils itself with the title, but if you don’t want to know the details don’t read on. (The proverb the film opens with also gives a few hints as to the direction it might be going in - ‘Let the man who seeks revenge remember to dig two graves’)

Based on Thomas Middleton’s Renaissance play, Alex Cox’s film transports the story to near-future Liverpool. The majority of the dialogue is Middleton’s, though interspersed with gloriously anachronistic lines (‘we got ourselves a fuckin’ Cockney here boys’) and a fair amount of swearing. The story has been streamlined a tad, and dialogue altered accordingly, but you’d have to know the original play a fair bit better than I do in order to see the join. Frank Cottrell Boyce (writer of Millions) wrote the screenplay for the adaptation, and it’s a good one. Unfortunately the trailer did the film something of a disservice in that it was mostly visual and the few lines it did feature were ones in modern English, leaving the viewer with no idea the film uses predominantly Renaissance language. Presumably this left a few people quite surprised when they got to the cinema, while others who might have liked that sort of thing gave it a miss. Personally, in 2002 I was too distracted by LOTR: The Two Towers to notice an obscure British film starring a guy who wasn’t yet tipped to star in Doctor Who, but I’m very pleased to have rectified this.

Ecclestone is Vindici, a man seeking revenge. His wife was poisoned on their wedding day by Derek Jacobi’s Duke after she refused to sleep with him. Years have passed, in which time she’s become the aforementioned skull and Vindici has presumably been seriously stewing a long way away. Now, however, he’s ready for his revenge, and the film begins with him striding into Liverpool, shaving his head as he walks. When faced by a group of yobs he beats the shit out of them without a word, because you Do Not Mess with Vindici.

Star of the Duke’s team is Eddie Izzard, as heir Lussurioso. He and his gang of glammed and punked up brothers are decadence personified – chauffeured everywhere, partying hard and never doubting they can have any woman they choose. Lussurioso is looking for a disreputable man to secure him a particular woman, and Vindici is conveniently available. Somewhat unfortunately for Lussurioso the woman he’s after is Vindici’s sister Castiza, and his attitude towards her gets him spot number two on Vindici’s vendetta list.

At under two hours the film is fairly quickly paced, with the two main threads being Vindici’s plot to to get the most violent revenge he can, and the scheming of the Duke’s various sons to get the title for themselves. The interaction between Ecclestone and Izzard is the high point, both performances being perfectly judged. However the gaggle of brothers are a fantastic counterpoint to Vindici’s bitter wit, using the visual aspects of their performances to get laughs not in the original text. The genuinely ludicrous clothing helps, but Marc Warren in particular shows a gift for physical comedy I hadn’t suspected. His glam and camp Supervacuo is crafty at times, but his dim oblivion to what’s going on throughout the play results in some fantastically misjudged behaviour and is responsible for a lot of the laugh out loud moments. Justin Salinger’s somewhat brighter (and rather handsome) Ambitioso tends to scheme with him, and their double act mirrors the more grown-up Vindici and Lussurioso.

The film is highly stylised, contrasting beautifully with the four hundred year old dialogue. The use of CCTV footage, television reporting and an extremely good soundtrack all add to the exceptional atmosphere of awesomeness, and the story itself seems well fitted within such a setting. As the flier that came with the dvd says, ‘comparisons have been made with Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo and Juliet - both inevitable and unfortunate.’ There are surface similarities, but this is about adults, not youth. This is an angry, bitter film, and a lot of the humour is in slightly uneasy laughter. Vincini veers from anger and grief to a sinisterly manic happiness, and part of the skill in Ecclestone’s perfomance is that he takes us part-way along the path of laughing with him before leaving us as he goes into the obviously manic and not at all funny. The grey area between the two states is the interesting part. Is it funny that he sings a brushing-your-teeth song while coating the skull’s teeth with poison? What about singing the same song the next day as he brushes his own teeth, cheerful after having murdered the Duke?

Alongside the manic, however, is the genuinely moving. When he asks of the skull ‘does every proud and self-affecting dame camphor her face for this?[...] Who now bids twenty pounds a night?’ his speech is bitter and almost heartbreaking, as he ponders on the difference between the skull and the woman it once was. Derek Jacobi’s soliloquy as he reflects on his own misdeeds accompanied by flashback footage is also an affecting one. Only six lines long, it’s a rare glimpse beneath the public persona, addressed straight to the camera. I can’t decide if we’re supposed to see regret, repentance or distaste (and I think the impenetrability is deliberate – it’s a confession conscious of its audience, and he holds something back that we only find out later) but there’s certainly a gravity to the scene.

I’ve also spent a while trying to work out how this film treats women, and I’m still not altogether sure. To tamper with a winning formula, I present the Dystopia Rape Watch.

Women raped while alive: 1
Women raped post-mortum: 1 (prior to film’s main timeline)
Women who commit suicide after being raped: Supposedly 1, though there are questions raised.
Women who retain chastity despite being desired by powerful man: 1
Rapists who die horribly: 2
Potential rapists who die horribly: 1
Women who are complicit in helping above men die horribly: 1 (in a departure from the play, Castiza helps Vindici get his revenge)
Women tempted to sell their daughters to rich men: 1
Women who enjoy sex: 1
Women who enjoy incestuous sex: 1
Men who get soliloquies: At least 2
Women who get soliloquies: 0 that I can think of

No gold star, but the powerlessness of women is a theme rather than something that feels exploitative. The sacredness with which society views purity is contrasted with the corrupt powers that take whatever they like, and neither side comes away well. The supreme reverence of chastity comes from the Duke’s rival Antonio, who speaks over his dead wife’s body praising her for apparently committing suicide after being raped. This is sinister rather than something the film condones, and the fact that everyone agrees with him and the public leave a massive carpet of flowers and toys - Princess Diana style - isn’t something that sits comfortably. Rather, it highlights how broken that society is, and it’s telling that when Vindici wants the Duke’s body to be discovered he leaves it amongst the flowers of the shrine.

In this corrupted society Castiza’s position is vulnerable, and she relies to some extent on her brothers for safety, especially after her mother’s betrayal. However she has more lines and more power that she had in the original play, and actually becomes one of the revengers. She also has obvious intentions to kill Lussurioso herself with no help from Vindici, although ultimately circumstances prevent her and he’s the one who gets to revenge her honour.

I’m inclined to give the film’s issues a bye in the knowledge that the text was written four centuries ago. There’s a lot of misogyny from the characters and the society they live in, but I don’t think the film itself is inexcusably so. Castiza may be the only positive female role, but she is an important character who is active rather than passive. She’s also allowed to spit – the film doesn’t present her as an idealised lady but a young woman with opinions, agency and a sense of humour who happens to be trapped in dystopia. I think this is one of those occasions when departing from the original text is absolutely the right decision.

My only real problem is with the title. The lack of apostrophe is annoying me. Perhaps its absence is a refusal to state whether there’s one revenger or many, but I could live without the ambiguity in order to have the world as it should be. That aside, I thoroughly recommend the film whether or not you’ve heard of the play. It’s awesome.

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Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 09:49 on 2009-02-26
Oh my God, I have to see this! *runs around in circles squealing with pure glee*

I love the fact that renaissance rape watch is ultimately renaissance soliloquy watch :)

To be honest, I rarely have problems with these kind of issues in historical plays... otherwise you might as well by Charlotte McBride crying over the fate of Elizabethan bears.
Sonia Mitchell at 12:02 on 2009-02-26
To be honest, I rarely have problems with these kind of issues in historical plays

I wouldn't bother much with a straight adaptation, but given that this departs from the text in places and uses its visuals to suggest a lot that isn't in the script I figured it might be interesting to pick through it a little. The film's very much a modern product rather than a historical one, and given what it had to work with I felt it actually did a pretty good job.

But I didn't mean to start crying about the bears :-)
Wardog at 14:28 on 2009-02-26
Yikes, I didn't actually mean to level that as a criticism either at you or at your review. It's always interesting to pick at the issues and I think it was sensible to address them, especially since, as you say, it sounds like a self-consciously "modern" adaption (despite the Renassaince language). I think I should have used "one" instead of "you" in that sentence, and I certainly didn't mean to suggest you were crying over bears :)

It was a more a general point, actually, aimed nowhere in particular (not even at bears) - in that I have often encountered people who react badly to 'misogyny' in historical documents, in the sense that they won't attribute merit because it's anti-woman or anti-semetic or something.

Partially this is just on my mind because I've been reading a lot of Trollope :)
Sonia Mitchell at 20:51 on 2009-02-26
I got that, don't worry :-) I was just wondering myself about the productivity of putting that bit in (And I think 'crying over bears' is a phrase I could myself using quite a bit. It's just so apt. Tilting at windmills and crying over bears...)

I have often encountered people who react badly to 'misogyny' in historical documents, in the sense that they won't attribute merit because it's anti-woman or anti-semetic or something

Yeah, it's tricky, and I think sometimes it is difficult to get over. I was iffy about Ezra Pound's work for quite a while after finding out about his views so I won't throw stones too much, but I do agree with you.

I think examining values is important, but as you said the problem lies in linking that with the merit of the work. I'm interested in Marxist takes on texts but I'm not going to throw my toys out of the pram because only the high characters get the blank verse speeches in pretty much any Ren drama.

I guess The Tempest is an extreme example of critics seeing only issues. I've only ever been taught it from a post-colonial angle (though in fairness it's not a favourite of mine so I haven't sought out wider criticism) whereas most of the other Shakespeare I've been formally taught has been from a more general angle which then touches on others. But that's anecdotal so proves nothing :-)
Sonia Mitchell at 20:52 on 2009-02-26
That didn't look like such a long comment in the little box..
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