Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s more obscure comedies, and for the most part defies that definition by our modern standards. It has funny parts to it, but it is also about a man imprisoned unjustly, separated lovers, and an embittered judge mad with power who offers a cruel bargain. It dealt with questions about how swiftly society should judge sexual morality in early 17th century. It is, by all accounts, a strange part of Shakespeare canon, and certainly an interesting topic for a modern-day adaptation.
In many ways, director Paul Ireland’s new film Measure for Measure is barely an adaptation of the Shakespeare play. It’s script (by Ireland and the late Damian Hill, to whom the film is dedicated) uses specifics plot points from the play, but it uses none of the Shakespearean language and mostly avoids the central questions about sexual morality. Instead, he casts a mob melodrama set against the backdrop of Melbourne, Australia that explores questions of faith, power and love. It is better described as Shakespeare meets Martin Scorsese. It is a (mostly) excellent film, anchored by an extraordinary performance by Hugo Weaving.
The film opens with an act of violence, a race-based spree killing carried out by a dangerous housing tower resident under the influence of meth. This explosion of violence sets two parallel stories into motion, which eventually converge as these things typically do in the movies.
The first is the story of two young people who meet in the wake of the attack, Jaiwara and Claudio (played by Megan Hajjar and Harrison Gilberston respectively). Jaiwara and Claudio quickly fall in love in classical Shakespearean spped, with the large complication of Jaiwara’s conservative Muslim background. Her family are refugees after their family business was bombed in Afghanistan, and both her mother and brother reject her relationship with Claudio outright. When Jaiwara refuses to cut off ties with Claudio, her brother (Fayssal Bazzi) uses his connections as an arms dealer to frame Claudio and send him to prison.
Jaiwara and Claudio’s relationship isn’t precisely a stellarly written romance, as they must fall madly in love in a short order of time for the plot to keep ticking along. But Hajjar and Gilbertson do perform with enough chemistry that you buy their relationship. Bazzi as Jaiwara’s guarded, criminal brother Farouk has a harder time communicating his deeply held distrust of the non-Muslim world without coming off as overblown even for the outsized task of the script and direction, but plays the role menacingly enough.
The second outcome is that Duke (Weaving), the drug lord responsible for the meth that was sold to the spree killer, is told to get out of town because he is likely going to be taken down in the midst of the investigation. After all, spree killings are extraordinarily rare in Australia. His second-in-command Angelo (Mark Leonard Winter) is temporarily placed in control of all criminal enterprises in Duke’s absence. In reality, Duke merely retreats to a safe house and watches Angelo’s action from afar through a series of security cameras he has set up throughout the city.
Weaving’s performance as Duke is the grounding the film requires to work; he has the gravitas of a man who has lived a hard life coming to terms with those decisions, and trying to set things right however he can. He is a criminal to be sure, selling drugs and predatory lending. But he doesn’t want to hurt anyone he can help. The opening scene has him admonishing Angelo for too much violent zeal, but you can tell that the warning comes from a place of experience and care, not simply judgment.
Winter is an equally formidable performance, only overshadowed by how much time he spends acting against Weaving. Is the ultimate villain of the piece, but one that the script and direction finds room to explore. He isn’t as simply drawn as Farouk, and even while he decisions are that much more despicable, he plays them all as logical extensions of him simply trying to do his best.
Where the two stories converge is the biggest pull from the play, as it serves as the central conflict of both stories. Suffice to say, if you are familiar with Shakespeare’s original play, you can probably guess where the story goes. If you aren’t familiar, it is probably a spoiler, but suffice to say that Angelo makes a mess of things and Duke is forced to step in to fix them. Meanwhile, Claudio and Jaiwara’s love is put to extreme tests, both from social pressure and internal struggles.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I hate the final shot of this movie. The themes of the movie, how our obsessions and loves affect our actions, resolve in satisfying ways across the board until the exact end of the movie, which serves to wrap up and tie-in into a minor plotline that is quite frankly not worth it. It slots into an otherwise thoughtful and soulful film a final hint of cynicism that it neither benefits from or asks for. It doesn’t spoil the whole film, but it would be an easy edit that would greatly benefit the film as a whole. Allow things to be unfinished, to hang unknown.
That one major frustration aside though, I think the film works as an inspired crime drama that plays things at a more elevated pitch than the genre sometimes aims for. This is not a simple morality tale, where loves conquers all, but rather an intense study on how our loves and passions can lead us to do things we never believed possible, both positive and negative. Ireland’s frame is always classical done, and when violence crops it feels appropriate volatile and unpredictable. It is a confident mob story that, despite a few blemishes in the margins, shines when it needs to.
Measure for Measure is available on Video on Demand September 4th, 2020.