A Jacobean horror-comedy about family, love, revenge and the criminal aristocracy set in a war-torn English futureworld, “Revengers Tragedy” is an ambitious, sometimes exhilarating but ultimately not very new attempt to unleash the power of great literature past by punking it up. With iconoclastic fervor, director Alex Cox (“Repo Man,” “Sid and Nancy”) and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce attack the 1607 play by Shakespeare’s young collaborator Thomas Middleton, designing a lawless and corrupt world around body-pierced villains in feather wigs, who recite the play’s quaint dialogue without batting a false eyelash. Although maliciously successful in drawing a parallel between the foulness of power then and now (references to Tony Blair’s Jubilee Britain are not accidental), the film pays more attention to displaying its inventiveness than to emotionally involving viewers in the characters’ torments. This lack of empathy, along with pic’s hard-to-follow English, is the limit that distribs will face in rustling up auds for a film that otherwise can bank on some youth appeal.
A bus full of dead passengers weaves down a grimy Liverpool street patrolled by gangs of punk-grunge “Cockneys,” setting an apocalyptic scene for the return of anti-hero Vindici (a wild-eyed, intense Christopher Eccleston, star of Cox’s 1992 “Death and the Compass”). In his secret lair, he talks to the skull of his dead love Gloriana, who was poisoned on their wedding day for refusing her favors to the all-powerful Duke (Derek Jacobi). Half-mad with grief and murderous rage, Vindici has come back to seek sweet vengeance.
With the help of his brother Carlo (Andrew Schofield as a working-class courtier, sporting a more sedate look than his Johnny Rotten role in “Sid and Nancy”), he gets close to the Duke’s eldest son Lussorioso (standup comic/actor Eddie Izzard). This decadent fellow plans on seducing and abandoning Vindici’s virtuous sister Castiza (Carla Henry), but Vindici is relieved to find her unbendable. Not so their blind mother (Margi Clarke), who wouldn’t mind selling the girl. This family squabble over honor will later be settled with Carlo attending.
Meanwhile, mayhem piles up like reeking garbage around the court. Lord Antonio’s (Antony Booth) lovely wife (model Sophie Dahl) commits suicide or is murdered after a court of law fails to indict the Duke’s youngest son for raping her. Another offspring is caught in lascivious embraces with his mother the Duchess (Diana Quick). The middle three sons form a demented glam-rock clique who offer some comic relief even as they scheme for the throne.
In a practically silent part, Jacobi makes the scarlet-lipped Duke as vile to look upon as a Medusa head. Though a striking model of evil, his hideous death while being tortured by Vindici’s gloating family casts moral doubt on the vendetta, particularly futile as no worthy successor is waiting in the wings.
Taking the opposite tack to the minimalist oppression of Derek Jarman’s retold “Edward II,” production designer Cecilia Montiel revels in streets littered with wrecks and over-decorated palaces, a complement to Monica Aslanian’s gaudy peacock costumes. In the same eclectic vein, Len Gowing’s lensing adds to pic’s very distinctive look.