Revengers Tragedy is based on the play The Revengers 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 Coxs and Cottrell Boyces 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 Jacobis 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 plays Italian court setting can be transplanted to. The result is akin to something like Baz Luhrmans Romeo +& Juliet (1996) and Julie Taymors Titus (1999) where Shakespeares 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 Ecclestons brooding performance drives much of the drama over Coxs 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 Jarmans Edward II (1992), while the choice of a collapsing near-future England cannot help but make one think of Jarmans weird punk experiment Jubilee (1978).