Director – Alex Cox, Screenplay – Frank Cottrell Boyce, Based on the Play by Thomas Middleton, Producers – Tod Davies & Margaret Matheson, Photography – Len Gowing, Music – Chumbawamba, Visual Effects Directors – Jon Corner & Paul Rogers, Makeup Design – Lesley Brennan, Production Design – Cecilia Montiel & Remi Vaughan-Richards. Production Company – Bard Entertainments/Exterminating Angel
Christopher Eccleston (Vendici), Eddie Izzard (Lussurioso), Derek Jacobi (The Duke), Marc Warren (Supervacuo), Paul Reynolds (Junior), Justin Salinger (Ambitioso), Diana Quick (The Duchess), Carla Henry (Castiza), Fraser Ayres (Spurio), Anthony Booth (Lord Antonio), Margi Clark (Hannah), Sophie Dahl (Imogen), Jean Butler (Gloriana)
Liverpool in the near future. Vendici returns to the city for the first time in many years. He is burning for vengeance against The Duke, the powerful businessman who owns much of the city. Because she had refused him, The Duke poisoned Vendici’s love Gloriana on their wedding day. When The Duke’s oldest son Lussurioso professes an interest in Vendici’s sister Castiza, Vendici uses the promise of arranging things to become close to him. He is thus able to weave a web that turns the plots and secrets in The Duke’s household against each other with the purpose of killing him and his family.
British-born Alex Cox was a director who once held great promise. Cox made a great debut with the gonzo punk film Repo Man (1984), which justly became a cult film for its trippy nuttiness. Cox subsequently went onto make Sid and Nancy (1986), a fine biopic of the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious. After that point, Cox’s name seemed a promising one. If he had stayed on that path, he could well have charted out the career that other directors like Michael Winterbottom and Danny Boyle enjoy today. Things started to go wrong with his next film Straight to Hell (1987), which started as a concert tour featuring groups like The Clash, Elvis Costello and The Pogues, but instead ended up as an aimless, plotless Western film that was shot in the Spanish desert featuring various musicians. Things failed to improve with subsequent films such as Walker (1987), The Highway Patrolman (1991), Death and the Compass (1992), The Winner (1996), Three Businessmen (1998), Searchers 2.0 (2007) and Bill the Galactic Hero (2014), where Cox seems to be operating on less and less resources, resulting in films that are increasingly more rambling to the point they often feel like amateur home movies. The most high-profile work Cox was associated with was the adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) but he ended up being removed from the project and replaced by Terry Gilliam after creative differences with Hunter S. Thompson. In more recent years, Cox appears to be trying to recycle past material with the likes of Repo Chick (2009) and Straight to Hell Returns (2010), although the quality of his films has improved none. Certainly, Cox attracts comments like how he is uncompromising and individualistic but I would defy anybody to sit through a marathon of Cox’s more obscure material and still come out singing his praises.
Revengers Tragedy is based on the play The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606). The author of the play was kept anonymous and their identity has been debated by scholars as being either Cyril Tourneur or, as by more recent academic consensus, Thomas Middleton, the author that the film chooses to attribute. To place this in historic context, the author was a contemporary of William Shakespeare and the play was first performed only a couple of years after the death of Queen Elizabeth I. The original setting of the play was an Italian court and it was intended as a black farce concerning the skulduggery occurring there. While not in the same league as Shakespeare, the play has been a popular one and is still performed today.
When it comes to Revengers Tragedy the film, Alex Cox and Frank Cottrell Boyce, a regular screenwriter for Michael Winterbottom, translate the play to contemporary Liverpool (both Cox’s and Cottrell Boyce’s hometown). The setting has been bumped up to a near-future one where the city teeters on the edge of social collapse and, while there still appears to be a functioning mayoralty, is dominated by Derek Jacobi’s The Duke who is now conceived as a mobster/business magnate. Outside of this, Alex Cox has minimal interest in Revengers Tragedy as a science-fiction film. He throws in some weak digital displays from a surveillance satellite and occasional shots of gigantic building-sized tv screens. However, this is simply science-fiction as borrowed setting in order to allow an atemporal look that the play’s Italian court setting can be transplanted to. The result is akin to something like Baz Luhrman’s Romeo +& Juliet (1996) and Julie Taymor’s Titus (1999) where Shakespeare’s plays have been uplifted and placed into the modern day or some semblance thereof.
I want to keep holding out hope for Alex Cox as I liked the works he made at the start of his career. Increasingly though, everything he has done for the last twenty-five years seems like an amateurish mess. Revengers Tragedy is no different. Cox seems to lack any sense of dramatic pacing and will frequently allow his cast to indulge themselves. You cannot deny that he has managed to bring together an impressive line-up of names – Christopher Eccleston, the esteemed British acting legend Derek Jacobi, Eddie Izzard, Marc Warren, the muchly underrated Diana Quick. Eccleston in particular seems to be having the time of his life stalking through the film like a raven and rolling the delicious blackness of the lines off his tongue.
The court intrigue of the play works okay and Christopher Eccleston’s brooding performance drives much of the drama over Cox’s lack of any real dramatic pace. Frank Cottrell Boyce has kept the Elizabethan dialogue intact, although allows it to mix with a good many Liverpudlian colloquialisms – imagine Shakespearean dialogue sitting alongside the likes of “Hey, mate” and “You foocking coont.” On the other hand, the costuming and makeup on some of the actors is downright eccentric to say the least. The great Derek Jacobi is outfitted in pasty white makeup, ponytail and red lipstick, while Marc Warren and brothers are decked out as though they had just come direct from attending a gay mardi gras and are allowed to play to the rafters. The results are less creative and colourful than they seem an amateur show straining to come across as eccentric and weird. The result feels more like amateur-hour Derek Jarman – the play and its court intrigue resembles Jarman’s Edward II (1992), while the choice of a collapsing near-future England cannot help but make one think of Jarman’s weird punk experiment Jubilee (1978).