Modern updates of Shakespeare are always a mixed bag. But for the most part, I’m in favor of them because they open up the Bard’s work to a new generation of viewers, especially if the story being adapted keeps the basic plot but swaps out the dense language of Shakespeare for something more contemporary. It was always the writer’s intention to make his works accessible to the masses of his time, so it makes sense that having them be understandable to audiences today might be the way to go. I sometimes miss the richness of the language, but if the interpretations are done right, I’m on board. This is the approach with the Australian production Measure for Measure, which takes a few necessary liberties with the original story and swaps out iambic pentameter for language that transforms the plot into a gritty love story told in the middle of a fairly terrifying crime drama.
There are actually a few intersecting stories happening in Measure for Measure. One involves the forbidden romance between Jaiwara (Megan Short), a Muslim girl, and musician Claudio (Harrison Gilbertson). They meet after a mass shooting in their neighborhood that leaves several dead at the hands of an amphetamines addict who just happens to have gotten his drugs from a gang led by Angelo (Mark Leonard Winter), the nephew and second in command of crime boss Duke (Hugo Weaving). Duke has looked the other way when it comes to Angelo’s drug operation, but after local police put some heat on Duke’s businesses, he tells Angelo to shut it down. Then Duke heads out of town until the heat dies down, putting Angelo in charge. What could go wrong?
Meanwhile, we discover that Jiwara’s older brother, Farouk (Fayssal Bazzi), is also a bit of a crime boss, but to her, he’s a protector who not only doesn’t like her dating a white guy, but is enraged enough to have him beaten and eventually to frame him and have him sent to prison, where he is mercilessly harassed. Jiwara and Farouk’s mother (Doris Younane) doesn’t like the relationship either, but she does want her daughter to be happy in the notorious housing estate where most of the film takes place. Jiwara turns to Duke for help in getting Claudio out of prison, but instead finds Angelo in charge, drugged out of his mind (he didn’t shut down his drug business; he flooded the streets with product instead), and demanding that she sleep with him in exchange for Claudio’s freedom.
Actors-turned-co-writers Paul Ireland (who also directed this followup to his first film Pawno) and Damian Hill (who was originally slated to play Angelo until he died right before shooting started) have done an impressive job making their version of Measure for Measure feel like an edgy profile of gang culture, racial tension, and the lengths people will go to escape both. Nearly everyone in the film is damaged goods, but for a select few, there is a chance for redemption and to break the cycle of crime and violence. Weaving’s Duke is especially complex as a man who has been hardened by the loss of his wife and daughter in a drunk-driving accident some years earlier, and when he finally does connect with Jiwara, he attempts to get Claudio (whom Duke has a connection to, going back a couple generations) out of jail while also dealing with his disruptive and disobedient nephew’s rude behavior.
Measure for Measure doesn’t pull any punches in its depiction of the brutality of the streets and the lack of any true justice through the normal, socially acceptable channels. The love story keeps us from getting completely lost in despair, but even that relationship is tested and in danger of being torn apart. The acting is solid across the board, and the film is a great example of how loose yet faithful a Shakespeare adaptation can be when handled with precision, a genuine flare for the language and a purpose for following the source material’s template. Measure for Measure is certainly different than so much of what’s out there right now, and everything about it feels modern and honest.
The film is available on VOD beginning Friday.
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