Over 500 years later, we still rely on William Shakespeare to tell us who we are.
Though adaptations of Shakespeare’s works have been hit (Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet) and miss (Michael Almareda’s Hamlet) over the years, the lasting influence of his works continues to endure and challenge our understanding of human nature. With the release of Paul Ireland’s Measure for Measure, we once again find ourselves face with another attempt to bring the Bard’s work into our modern society. Thankfully, though first published in 1604, the heart of Measure translates well into the 21st Century by speaking to the battle for man’s soul when pressured by the evils that surround him.
Set in Melbourne, Australia, Measure for Measure tells the story of Claudio (Harrison Gilbertson), a local musician who lives in Melbourne’s most notorious housing estate. Controlled by the drug kingpin Duke (Hugo Weaving), the area is filled with substance abuse and violence yet Claudio has no interest in such drama. When he falls in love with Jaiwara (Megan Smart), a modern Muslim girl, he finds himself embroiled in a gang conflict with deep racial ties that threatens to tear his life—and his love—asunder.
Directed by Ireland (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Damian Hill, Measure adapts well into today’s context and, as a result, proves to be one of the more memorable recent reimagining’s of Shakespeare’s works. While the chemistry between Gilbertson and Smart is enjoyable, it’s Weaving’s performance that carries the film. Weaving is simply wonderful to watch as drug kingpin Duke, carrying every scene that he’s in with gravitas and humility.
While Measure for Measure may not be as well-known as another pair of star-crossed pair of lovers from Shakespeare’s canon, the story somehow seems more effective in a modern context. Though the ‘star-crossed lovers’ theme is common amongst the Bard’s works, Ireland’s emphasis on modern racial divides adds another layer to the story that speaks to the moment. At a time when conversations about ethnicity dominate the headlines, Measure’s conversation around the flawed perceptions and stereotypes that we cling to seems especially appropriate.
As with the original work, Measure tells a story of what it means to keep your virtue in a world where darkness rises all around you. Despite his innocence, Claudio’s imprisonment takes a toll on his soul as he faces increasing pressure to succumb to the evil that surrounds him. Facing both mental and physical abuse, Claudio is pushed to deny his love for Jaiwara and give up that which he holds closest to his heart. Even so, while he walks gingerly along the line of virtue and vice, he refuses to let go of the love that drives him.
In many ways, Measure holds Claudio in juxtaposition with Angelo (Mark Leonard Winter) who also is also pulled toward his more base instincts after he’s left in power. Having grown up with Duke as his mentor, Angelo also maintains a certain sense of innocence (despite his involvement in the drug industry). Young and impetuous, Angelo still seeks to honour Duke when he receives the opportunity to lead. However, whereas Claudio fights to cling to his purity, Angelo is more willing to compromise in the face of temptation, gradually allowing darkness to infect his character. As such, Angelo’s fall demonstrates the destruction that can happen to a soul who values power over love for others.
Engaging and passionate, the latest incarnation of Measure for Measure thankfully falls on the positive side of the ledger of modern Shakespearean tales. Featuring an effective adaptation of the story for today’s culture and an engaging cast, the film proves that Shakespeare’s works still resonate thematically with audiences today and have much to teach us still about the brokenness of the human soul.
Measure for Measure premieres on VOD on Friday, September 4th, 2020.