Producers: Damian Hill and Paul Ireland Director: Paul Ireland Screenplay: Paul Ireland and Damian Hill Cast: Hugo Weaving, Harrison Gilbertson, Megan Hajjar, Mark Leonard Winter, Daniel Henshall, Fayssal Bazzi, Doris Younane, Josh McConville, Christie Whelan Browne, Malcolm Kennard, Luke Lennox, John Bumpton and Gerald Lepkowski Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Shakespeare takes to the streets of Melbourne in Paul Ireland’s modernized adaptation of “Measure for Measure.” Or perhaps “adaptation” is too strong a word. Measured by its language, the film is not Shakespearean at all; the dialogue is by Ireland and Damian Hill, not the Bard of Stratford-Upon-Avon—none of the soaring rhetoric of the original remains, and there are plenty of today’s verbal obscenities studding the lines. And while the plot is clearly inspired by the play, the tone is far removed from the original’s comic (or at least comedy-dramatic) one. This is a straight-on drama, beginning with a horrendous act of violence.
That comes outside the Melbourne apartment block that serves as the headquarters of the city’s crime boss Duke (Hugo Weaving), where a troubled, drugged-out war vet begins shooting people because they refuse to speak English. He almost kills Jaiwara (Megan Hajjar), a beautiful Muslim girl we see disembarking from a train, but she’s saved by Claudio (Harrison Gilbertson), a handsome young musician who removes his earplugs just in time to save her from harm’s way. They’re soon romantically involved.
But it’s not to be a happy affair, since Jaiwara’s mother Karima (Doris Younane) is opposed to her daughter’s dalliance. So too is her brother Farouk (Fayssal Bazzi), himself a ferocious drug-dealer.
Meanwhile Duke, blamed by many for the violence at his high-rise and feeling unwell, is advised to absent himself for a while, and so he announces that he’s going off on vacation, leaving control of operations in the hands of his second-in-command Angelo (Mark Leonard Winter), whom he instructs to stop dealing in the hardest drugs. But he doesn’t leave; he takes another suite from which he can keep watch via security cameras on what’s happening in his domain, and particularly on Angelo.
The crux comes when Claudio is framed by Farouk and thrown in jail, where he begs Jaiwara to help him, Duke intervenes, and so she goes to Angelo to ask for his help. He, however, uses the occasion to try to satiate his own lust. That helps to ensure his own eventual downfall (quite literally, as it turns out). But Claudio is ultimately freed, to Jaiwara’s satisfaction.
Anyone familiar with the play will recognize some of its plot elements here—as well as the many changes, omissions and inventions. The result is interesting as a kind of sociological modernization of the original, but it’s hardly Shakespeare, and viewers are advised to look elsewhere if what they want is a more traditional rendering—or just the text of the play.
The lack of fidelity to the source wouldn’t matter much of Ireland had managed to fashion a truly compelling variation on the play, but he hasn’t. The film’s commentary on the multicultural character of today’s society doesn’t go very deep, and while the level of violence is fairly high, it never registers as a depiction of the horrors of modern urban life.
Nor is the acting of a calibre to compensate sufficiently for the deficiencies of the script. Weaving brings gravity to Duke without making him overly thuggish and Hajjar is affectingly muted as Jaiwara, but Gilbertson’s Claudio is rather anemic. Otherwise the performances send toward overstatement, except for Winter’s Angelo, who looks fine but never comes into clear focus as a character and winds up seeming a bit wan. In terms of craft the film is okay for a bare-bones production; Vanessa Franz’s production design is convincing gritty and Ian Jones’s cinematography certainly doesn’t beautify things, while the editing by Gary Woodyard is occasionally a mite choppy but generally adequate. The score by Tristan Dewey and Tai Jordan makes use of pop numbers for emphasis, usually quite predictably.
As a version of Shakespeare, this one doesn’t really measure up, and as a grim urban melodrama, it’s fairly mediocre.
It’s dedicated to Hill, who died in 2018.