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Review of 'Revengers Tragedy', director Alex Cox

If your idea of a good night out is a movie based on a 400 year old play in blank verse, set in an imaginary and dystopian Liverpool with a cast that includes Eddie Izzard, Cherie Booth's dad and Craig who won Big Brother, all played out to the music of Chumbawamba, then get your coat now. 'Revengers Tragedy' is what you've been waiting for.

The director of 'Revengers Tragedy', Alex Cox, believes that his film has more significance than a night out. Firstly, as his recent article in 'Sight and Sound' explains, Cox sees his movie as a model for the resuscitation of the British film industry. Secondly, Cox has been quoted as saying that the movie is a contribution to the fight against the war on Iraq.

The British film industry is in a state of collapse. Outside the deadly triangle of 'Potter'/'Bond'/'Four Bridgets and a Notting Hill' there are almost no British movies being made any more.

It's all such a contrast to the clammy optimism of 'Cool Britannia'. Then the money available from the National Lottery Film Fund seemed to offer a new dawn for British film-makers. What happened next is a scandal (or rather two scandals in one). Vast amounts of money were siphoned from working class pockets by the National Lottery and given to film 'consultants' and coked-up film 'entrepreneurs' to make movies that no one wanted to see. The figures are really quite obscene. The majority of the 104 movies made with our money were never released. That's the obvious financial larceny, but there is a parallel artistic scandal. Many (but not all) of the movies that were released were still unwatchable trash.

Until now this story has been monopolised by ideologues from the right (especially its Blairite wing) to justify their mantra of the inevitability of market-driven globalised film-making. These 'Big Picture' wonks argue that since the global market is god, the future of cinema in Britain is to make the movies that Donald Rumsfeld might want to see. This notion is now enshrined in Blair's new Film Council, fronted by Hollywood insider Alan Parker (recently knighted by Blair).

At long last someone from the left has taken up this argument and thrown it back in their smarmy faces. Alex Cox argues, 'The proposals are radical, even extreme, but not original. They are like other radical projects that we associate with Thatcher and New Labour--the poll tax, the privatisation of our public services, the London Underground PPP. Such universally disliked policies emanate from right wing think-tanks in the US and are imposed on the rest of the world via the IMF, the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank...

'I'm sorry to say what Sir Alan knows but can't bring himself to say because (quite literally) his real job depends on it: American studio films are mostly bad and devoid of originality...Hollywood is like Microsoft or McDonald's: it pushes a palpably inferior product but its wealth and ubiquity give it huge power and leverage.'

It has to be said that Cox's practical suggestions (which add up to a plan for a publicly subsidised regional production base) are rather modest, yet what is refreshing about his polemic is that he is not arguing against Hollywood in the name of Little Englander nationalism. He is arguing for a film culture of challenging, inventive and committed movies that tell stories and speak in voices that Hollywood just does not get. Cox calls these 'quirky, individual and revivifying' films.

This is where 'Revengers Tragedy' fits. It was made in Liverpool with a young, inexperienced crew and financed through a raft of subsidies. It is therefore pleasing that Cox's film delivers on his promises. The direction is constantly inventive and witty. The acting is excellent. In fact the enthusiasm of the crew is palpable. All in all it's like Baz Luhrmann without the MTV juvenilia (or Peter Greenway without the pretentiousness), which is good.

But is it, as Alex appears to think, a political film? Well, yes--in the broadest sense, in that we are given the pleasure of watching the rich bastards get their bloody comeuppance. But I would question Cox's opinion in several other ways. The decision to keep the Jacobean verse will obviously create a barrier for many audiences. More fundamentally, there is an inevitable political conundrum in transcribing a work from 1607 that Cox ignores. As Louise Kerr pointed out, the Jacobean tragedies were the product of a particularly malodorous moment in European history--it was a world of violent death, pestilence and dynastic corruption. Audiences of the time lived that reality and could superscribe it over the fictional characters. To give Middleton's play a contemporary political resonance, audiences need the same cues. In the theatre a few years ago Timon of Athens went electric when Trevor Nunn turned the antagonists into Thatcherite City-suits. Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet wired up an A-level love story by turning Verona into the venue of a modern turf war. In Revengers Tragedy the Dukes appear closer to the armed wing of Trotters Independent Trading Company than any identifiable faction of our global ruling class.

Don't expect an easy feelgood film. But do expect a film which is 'quirky, individual and revivifying'. And viciously funny.