Racism, revenge and a cross-cultural romance compete for screen time in Paul Ireland’s “Measure for Measure,” a dolorous reimagining of Shakespeare’s play set in and around a tower block in Melbourne, Australia.
Replacing the comedy of the original with grime and violence, the movie opens with a mass shooting as a meth-addled Afghanistan veteran mows down a group of innocent, multiracial residents. This initial brutality matters less than its reverberations among the various lowlifes who share the block, most importantly the crime lord Duke (Hugo Weaving, placid and patriarchal), an old-school villain with a moral code to match.
Leaving his volatile lieutenant, Angelo (Mark Leonard Winter), in charge, Duke pretends to take a vacation until the heat dies down, instead hiding nearby to spy on his business via hidden cameras. At the same time, romance is brewing between a young Muslim woman, Jaiwara (Megan Hajjar, doing a lot with little), and the musician, Claudio (Harrison Gilbertson), who rescued her from the shooter. This development infuriates Jaiwara’s brother, Farouk (Fayssal Bazzi, riveting as an asylum-seeker in the excellent Netflix mini-series “Stateless”), a gangster who intends to make Claudio pay.
Convoluted and ponderously paced, “Measure for Measure” relies too often on sentimental music and narrative shorthand (another falling-in-love montage, anyone?). Glancing social commentary — like the difficulties of cultural assimilation and the invisible wounds of war — is welcome, but the script (by Ireland and Damian Hill, who died in 2018) is too cluttered for it to resonate and too mired in a muddle of sin and redemption.