“Cinema always has a place for new imaginings of old stories.”
Paul Ireland’s Measure for Measure immediately establishes that it is not your parent’s Shakespeare. “It’s all about the drugs Duke – you need to get away, to take a holiday or something”, Duke (Hugo Weaving) is advised by his right hand man – a line that sums up this film’s approach.. Drug crime and tensions between immigrant communities are rife in a Melbourne council estate, as Duke (not a title here, just his name) begins to question his status as a crime boss. He and his advisors talk not about Shakespeare’s moral quandaries of leadership but about how weird babies smell. Yet, just outside, the ‘bloody jungle’ his protegee Angelo (Mark Leonard Winter) and his cronies have created on the violent streets begins to spiral out of control, and – like in Shakespeare – Duke decides to take a hiatus and watch the city from the shadows. On those streets, self-taught musician Claudio (Harrison Gilbertson) meets Jaiwara (Megan Hajjar), a Muslim immigrant with university aspirations, and romance blossoms. Jaiwara’s brother, however, is one of Angelo’s top enforcers, putting them in the political line of fire.
This is a film that takes direct inspiration from Shakespeare but filters it through an intentionally grimy modernity. Grimdark Shakespeare more often falls flat, and this film checks all the boxes of a high school Shakespeare production striving for relevance: drugs, guns, immigration, class conflict – if it has been a headline, it is here. That said, Measure for Measure throws itself headfirst into this bold, uneven interpretation, making it feel vital even as the plot strains credulity. The film is ultimately sold by equally committed performances which bring genuine tenderness and humanity to a difficult tale.
Hugo Weaving seems to be having a grand time as Duke, relishing the more melodramatic sections and never overshadowing the rest of the cast. He growls out lines straight from a police procedural with gusto, calling his associates maggots and lamenting the fact that “we all cross the line sometimes but there’s still a bloody line.” At the same time, he foregrounds Duke’s self-doubt amidst his gravitas: he knows his legacy is a bloody one; his reckoning with the time he has left feels honest.
Claudio and Jaiwara’s love story is where the film soars. Gilbertson’s and Hajjar’s sincere performances and unforced, sweet chemistry render their youthful dreams tangible. Audiences never get to know Claudio and Juliet as a couple in Shakespeare’s original, as the play opens with their separation and ends with their reunion. Here, every chapter in their tender love story unfolds against their unforgiving situations. Knowing and believing them makes what comes next genuinely wrenching; by the time Jaiwara tells her beloved that she cannot live without him, “not in this lifetime”, nothing feels more truthful or important.
Jaiwara becomes both Juliet and Isabella as the plot progresses in a rough approximation of Shakespeare’s. This choice leads to some of the film’s more dubious elements, removing much of the grace and justice evident in Shakespeare in favour of something more brutal, hollow, and gratuitous. In a script that otherwise emphasises every player’s agency – even the most disenfranchised – this development feels especially unearned, even considering the play’s amorality. At the same time, love and humanity make themselves known. When Jaiwara approaches Duke about Angelo’s frightening proposal, the moment is genuinely moving, both parties’ kindness cutting through the salaciousness of the scenario to let the hard, heart-wrenching choice land.
This Measure for Measure may not be a timeless, or even particularly timely, adaptation of Shakespeare’s problem play, but so much heart has gone into the revisioning that it finds genuine poignancy and hope despite some questionable dramatic choices. Sympathy abounds for immigrants, working class, and those who slip through the cracks – and cinema always has a place for new imaginings of old stories.
Directed By: Paul Ireland
Produced By: Damian Hill, Paul Ireland
Cast: Hugo Weaving, Mark Leonard Winter, Megan Hajjar, Harrison Gilbertson
Release Date: 5th March 2020 (Glasgow Film Festival)
Featured Image Courtesy of Bankside Films