One of Shakespeare’s lesser-celebrated works is transplanted from the high-horsed moral prudishness of 17th century Vienna to the bigoted ganglands of modern-day Melbourne in this ambitious adaptation from Scottish actor-turned-director, Paul Ireland. Certain elements of the original story are retained, but much of the script is given a full makeover to fit into the contemporary setting.
For starters, the implacable authority of the Bard’s Duke is replaced by Hugo Weaving’s crime kingpin of the same name, who, despite operating on the opposite side of the law, carries a similarly imposing bearing and the same (if somewhat skewed) moral rectitude as his namesake. His protégé, Angelo (Mark Leonard Winter), becomes an impulsive and easily led hothead, keen to please his mentor but keener to satisfy his baser urges.
Meanwhile, the central crime of the original play – carnal knowledge outside of wedlock – becomes a construct perhaps more suited to Romeo and Juliet, as Claudio (Harrison Gilbertson) is a white aspiring musician who falls for Muslim immigrant Jaiwara (Megan Smart). Her family (who also happen to be embroiled in the city’s criminal underbelly) disapprove strongly of the union, engineering the arrest of Claudio as a result.
Thankfully, Ireland also dispenses with the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare’s verses, which can so often prove an impediment to a credible and enjoyable retelling of his compelling tales. Instead, the original script is used as a loose framework for Ireland’s own narrative to unwind itself, and although the outcome is pretty much a foregone conclusion for those familiar with the source material, there’s enough originality in the piece to keep it engaging.
This attempt to balance the thematic content of the original with current concerns doesn’t always come off, however. Whereas Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure was all about championing morality and justice, Ireland’s version is a far messier animal that incorporates a diverse number of elements, including racial and religious tensions, drug abuse, police corruption and the idea of honour amongst thieves. With all of these strands floating around at the same time, it’s inevitable that some will be overlooked or side-tracked in favour of others, and so it proves. The end result is an entertaining enough yarn about young lovers and old felons, but the narrative doesn’t always hang together as convincingly as could be desired.
Performances are similarly erratic; Weaving brings his usual gravelly-voiced gravitas to the Duke, while Smart’s quiet dignity is a standout as the unfortunate Jaiwara. Gilbertson does what he can with the largely agency-less Claudio, who spends so much time bawling his eyes out behind bars that it’s a wonder his body has retained any water at all. Leonard Winter gives a charismatic performance as the flawed egotist of the piece, but Fayssal Bazzi altogether overdoes the arch-villain Farouk, resulting in a snarling and spitting eye-bulger of a character who doesn’t ever really seem real.
These inconsistencies, coupled with a few plot points that are clearly included for shock value alone, mean that Measure for Measure is a diverting but ultimately flawed piece of cinema. As an attempt to update the original storyline for a modern audience, it’s surely a qualified success – but as an authentic narrative in its own right, there are too many clunky plot manoeuvres and two-dimensional characters for it to be deemed a proper hit.