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Revengers Tragedy (2003)
Director: Alex Cox

review by Ian Shutter

The former presenter of BBC-TV's cult cinema showcase, Moviedrome, breaks new ground here with his first proper British film. Revengers Tragedy is based on the 17th century play by Thomas Middleton, and vaguely resembles the sort of overly ambitious, ferociously lurid and unstoppable black farce previously only attempted by Stanley Kubrick or Ken Russell wannabes. Yes, people, this is a bit like Clockwork Orange (1971), with the portentously mannered clichés fired up on an acidic cocktail of millennial grunge and sham glam rock follies. The wildly inventive combination of dystopian science fiction and the original Jacobean play's archaic dialogue, makes Revengers Tragedy skate ever closer to the fringes of absurdity with each vengeful act, yet it emerges from a narrative cocoon of bitterness and guile with fragile wings intact and, yes, it soars - when it really ought to crash and burn...
   At the centre of this archly theatrical drama is part protagonist, part narrator, Vindici (Christopher Eccleston, delivering a compelling performance). Arriving in the rundown Liverpool of 2011, after ten years in exile, he casually beats up a gang of street hoodlums who dare to inquire whether he's a cockney, and soon contacts his brother Carlo (Andrew Schofield), who now works for the Duke (Derek Jacobi, with a lipsticked leer), who poisoned Vindici's bride Gloriana (Jean Butler) on her wedding day. Vindici wants revenge on the Duke and the ruling clan, and is quite prepared to use his own sister Castiza (Carla Henry), as bait in a trap to kill the Duke. But first we meet the Duke's son and heir, Lussurioso (Eddie Izzard, a revelation!) who, like his dumber brothers, twins Ambitioso and Supervacuo (a double-act of camp archetypes played to the hilt by Justin Salinger and Marc Warren), is eventually manipulated into familial betrayal, and worse. The Duke's delinquent son Junior (Paul Reynolds) rapes beautiful Imogen (model Sophie Dahl), trophy wife of the Duke's rival Lord Antonio (Anthony Booth), resulting in her suicide out of social shame after the mockery of a trial, and her imprisoned attacker's unintentional execution.
   Perhaps not surprisingly, given his filmic track record on the likes of punk biopic Sid And Nancy (1986) and perplexing nativity variant Three Businessmen (1998), Cox gives us a deeply satirical and amusingly cynical slant on these events, as the respectable Imogen's passing is marked by an impromptu flowery memorial resembling that unrestrained public outpouring of grief which greeted the accidental death of Princess Diana. But there's no rest for the wicked, and Vindici's plans are about to reach their, somewhat illogical, conclusion, with a honey trap staged at the stadium (a neglected sporting venue relegated to table football tournaments), and the ascension to power of Lussurioso, and the banishment of his mother, the possibly incestuous Duchess (Diana Quick). Is murdering the Duke revenge enough for Vindici? Of course not!
   Scornful of anything straightforward or orthodox, director Cox wreathes his frequently seedy, alternately magnificent, views of Merseyside in an extraordinary timeless style, complementing the anarchic goings-on and the incongruity of the speeches. Despite the unrelenting weirdness, events appear to have been fortuitously captured on camera, rather than framed for the screen or depicted in standard cinematic mode. This is where Cox's shrewd mastery of genre-breaking storytelling and thematic resonance is pushed to the foreground, making Revengers Tragedy just as unsettling as it is beguiling. As Lussurioso, the previously undistinguished comedy actor Izzard underplays his role like a straight man to Vindici, whose more energetic presence is the nearest thing the film has to a fully rounded character (or, at least, we can understand his grim motivation, even if his aims and methods are practically insane).
   Though none of the characters are likeable, the story remains gripping in its unreality, and the creative technique on display here is quite fascinating. If you thought many of those modern day Shakespearean films failed to reconcile the quirks of thou, wherefore, and mucho ado dialogue with their contemporary settings, here's a similarly updated but morally transgressive and satisfyingly 'dislocated drama' to win you over.
   Tartan's region 0 DVD has an anamorphic widescreen (aspect ratio 1.77:1) transfer, behind-the-scenes documentary Seeking Revenge, rehearsal footage, English subtitles for the deaf, and a four-page insert with liner notes by Steven Paul Davies, author of the excellent profile, Alex Cox: Film Anarchist.
Revengers Tragedy

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