Dir: Alex Cox. UK. 2002. 112mins.
UK film-maker Alex Cox first came across Thomas Middleton's Jacobean revenge tragedy as a student in 1976, when he was intrigued by its very modern blend of morbid comedy and ultra-violence. His long-planned screen version is steeped in a 1970s anarcho-punk sensibility, with Derek Jarman a striking influence on its satirical and apocalyptic elements (Jubilee, The Last of England) and irreverent anachronisms (Edward II, Caravaggio). The result has a slightly dated feel: its rebellious mood might have been perfect for Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee in 1977, but looks less representative of Blairite, Golden Jubilee Britain, perhaps partly due to Cox's long absence from the country. Still its timeless themes, the wealth of visual invention and the director's dedicated admirers should secure the film a cult following.
As with Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet, the stylised futuristic setting and lively, lucid treatment of a byzantine play - long neglected but now back on the cultural map, thanks to two stage revivals by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1966 and 1987 - could also work well in educational contexts. However, the Liverpool accents and extravagant period language may present difficulties, particularly for US audiences.
Set in 2011, the film's premise is that southern England has been destroyed by a comet, leaving the North ravaged by gang warfare and urban decay. Revengers Tragedy (there is no apostrophe, in compliance, according to Cox, with the play's original 1607 title page) begins with the arrival in Liverpool of a mysterious stranger, Vindici (Christopher Eccleston), whose bride - a flashback reveals - was poisoned on their wedding day 10 years earlier. The killer was the degenerate Duke (Derek Jacobi), a Londoner who now rules the city and his five children with an iron hand.
This dynasty is a rum lot. One son is having an affair with the Duke's wife (Diana Quick). Another rapes a beautiful blonde aristocrat (supermodel Sophie Dahl) whose subsequent death and canonisation - to the political advantage of her widower - invites pointed parallels with Princess Diana. Completing the line-up is the Duke's spoiled, lascivious heir, Lussurioso (Eddie Izzard).
The family is contrasted with Vindici's own: his brother, a virtuous sister, who Lussurioso is bent on seducing, and their blind mother (Margi Clarke) who proves vulnerable to corruption. Meanwhile Vindici himself has embarked on a plan to eliminate the Duke and his clan by ingeniously sadistic methods.
With its mix of outrageous farce and spectacular bloodshed, Revengers Tragedy bears a passing similarity to the recent cycle of British gangster movies. However, Middleton's corrosive vision of a society obsessed with power, sex and money lends it a moral gravitas that - unlike many of these films - stops it ballooning into flippancy.
Among an effective cast, Eccleston's manic avenger and the silky, heavily made-up Jacobi are worthy antagonists. Meanwhile Izzard, a comedian-turned-actor whose dramatic talent has been steadily evolving, has a strong screen presence and - with the actors playing his four siblings - brings out the play's absurdist streak.
The film looks grungy but distinctive on a tight budget, with an eclectic design dominated by punk and glam-rock laced with historical and Middle East detail and an emphasis on tattoos, piercings and extravagant make-up - Izzard sports the strangest false eyelashes since Malcolm McDowell's in A Clockwork Orange. The omnipresent throbbing score by anarcho pop band Chumbawumba is over-used but ratchets up the general atmosphere of menace.
Prod cos: Bard Entertainments, Exterminating Angel, Northcroft Films
UK dist: Metro Tartan
Int'l sales: Pathe
Exec prod: Paul Trijbits
Prods: Margaret Matheson, Tod Davies
Scr: Frank Cottrell Boyce, based on the play by Thomas Middleton
Cinematography: Len Gowing
Prod des: Cecilia Montiel
Ed: Ray Fowlis
Main cast: Christopher Eccleston, Derek Jacobi, Eddie Izzard, Diana Quick, Antony Booth, Sophie Dahl, Margi Clarke