Movie Review: Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” becomes an Aussie crimeland drama/love-story

In the canon, it’s listed with “the problem plays,” those Shakespearean works treated as comedies but with death, troubles and darkness lain o’er the “true love tested” proceedings.

Resetting “Measure for Measure” in modern day Australia, in the gangland apartment projects of new immigrants and old hoodlums, may not be the most graceful adaptation of the Bard’s works. But if nothing else, it captures the melancholy, the later-life appeals for mercy and tolerance that crept into Shakespeare’s thinking and writing.

So no, the poetic turns of phrase aren’t literally here — “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall…Condemn the fault and not the actor of it?” No “Virtue is bold, and goodness never fearful.,” either.

But the point remains, even when the Duke, here a sickly old gang boss played by Hugo Weaving, is grumbling about roots and remembering where he came from. He tells a subordinate “People who don’t know where they are can’t know WHO they are.”

Weaving anchors the actor-turned-director Paul Ireland’s film in somber reflection and resignation. And I have to say, after a fashion, he makes it work.

Duke is in the last days of presiding over his empire. But his lieutenant, Angelo (Mark Leonard Winter) has been shifting the focus to meth dealing. And when we meet them, that blows up in their faces. A junkie shoots up the courtyard just below the Duke’s penthouse.

That violence is what throws Claudio (Harrison Gilbertson of “In the Tall Grass”) in the path of Jaiwara (Megan Smart of “Breath”) — literally. He shoves her out of the way of the ranting, racist and stoned shooter. Romance blossoms.

That’s a problem because Jaiwara isn’t just an immigrant, and a Muslim. Her brother Farouk (Fayssal Bazzi) is a gang leader in his own right. He doesn’t know Claudio saved his sister, only that he and his mother (Doris Younane) cannot have Jaiwara stepping out with an infidel. Her confession to her mother is quiet, reluctant and heartbreaking.

“I’m sorry mother, but I love him.”

Retaliation against the unaffiliated kid is swift and brutal, and ongoing. He winds up in prison, framed by the gang-friendly crooked cop (Malcolm Kennard). Somebody needs to step up and save him. Who has the juice, and the mercy hidden deep in his soul, to take pity on an innocent?

There’s no sense at all laying Shakespeare’s work alongside the Damian Hill/Paul Ireland screenplay. But you can sense the Bard in scenes, characters and clever plot twists.

Weaving, now the Grand Old Man of Australian Cinema, with “The Matrix” and “Lord of the Rings” franchises long behind him, gives a tender toughness to Duke, a conniver who pretends to go on vacation, but instead hides out in that penthouse tracking the others’ actions via his CCTV system.

Interesting way to make a character omniscient.

“It’s a bloody castle,” where he lives, he’s assured. “It’s a PRISON,” to him.

But watch him soften, just a little, at seeing young love undone by intolerance, heartless underlings and circumstance.

Winter (“The Dressmaker”) conveys the oily ruthlessness who remains loyal, even as he feels licensed to act with impunity.

The script may have Smart Westernize her Middle Eastern refugee a tad more than can be easily believed. But the guy saved her life and loves Childish Gambino. What’s not to fall for?

I haven’t seen “Measure for Measure” on the stage in years, but the rough shape of it forms in the mind watching this adaptation, its hits (characters) and the reasons it’s called “a problem play.” And those bones, a poignant romance, betrayals and mercy coming from the most unexpected places and vivid characters, pretty much save this film, or at least make it watchable.

MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, drug content, profanity

Cast: Hugo Weaving, Megan Smart, Harrison Gilbertson, Mark Leonard Winter, Doris Younane and Fayssal Bazzi

Credits: Directed by Paul Ireland, script by Damian Hill and Paul Ireland, based on the play by William Shakespeare. A Samuel L. Goldwyn release.

Running time: 1:47

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