Review: Coriolanus (2011)

Director: Ralph Fiennes

***

There is a violence and primeval surge in the works of William Shakespeare that seems to influence those who choose to direct him. Would Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, for all its blockbuster trappings, have seemed so muscular and robust had Branagh not commanded the Bard so many times beforehand? Ralph Fiennes is no stranger to Shakespeare on stage, and for his directorial debut has chosen to bring one of ol’ Shakey’s most underrated and angry plays to the big screen. Featuring political intrigue, backstabbing and plenty of scope for action, Coriolanus is the perfect vehicle for a debut director seeking to prove himself. See Ralph go!

There are two ways to do Shakespeare on film: either keep it Shakespearian or shoehorn the text into a modern, or at least a more relevant, context. Coriolanus takes place in a Balkans-like country facing a similar insurrection to those experienced in the region throughout the 1990s. Caius Martius (Fiennes) has led the armies of ‘a city known as Rome’ (as the cue card tells us) to victory against the Volscian army (led by Gerard Butler’s Tullus Aufidius). In the city, Martius is loathed by the people, and he loathes them in return. Such a lovely chap; it’s actually one of the key problems with Coriolanus. There are very few characters with whom we can completely empathize. Both Rome and the Volscians are populated by infuriated masses and power-hungry leaders. Only Senator Menenius (Brian Cox) feels in any way likeable, as he tries to defend his friend Martius based on his military prowess. After the victory against the Volscians, Martius returns to Rome, is given the name Coriolanus and is proposed as the new Consul of the Senate. It seems to be set in stone when the people, led by Sicinius (James Nesbitt) and Brutus (Paul Jesson), oppose this move and banish Coriolanus from Rome. The relocation of the action to present day does present an opportunity for commentary on all kinds of political themes, from the nature of democracy to the corruptive nature of power. John Logan’s (Gladiator, Hugo) adapted script makes a decent fist of translating the action to a Balkan context, but the sad fact is that Shakespearian language outside of the time it came from can’t help but sound anachronistic. Someone like Fiennes or Vanessa Redgrave (as Martius’ militaristic mother) could be in the middle of a fine monologue, and then it ends with tanks rolling in or shots being fired. The bard’s words are deserving of a little more contextual finesse, and when you’re expecting more battles and gunfire, it just make the dialogue drag.

Even if Coriolanus doesn’t do justice to Shakespeare, Fiennes should be proud of his own accomplishments here. His performance is fiery (put him in military garb and he’s immediately frightening), and his direction is just as energetic. Gunfire echoes in the battle scenes and intense stares and delivery of dialogue mark Coriolanus as a necessarily brash piece of work, as well as marking Fiennes out as a capable and confident director. His next work behind the camera will be awaited. A strong cast (Butler, Cox, Jessica Chastian) flesh out their roles, but Redgrave steals the show with a trademark blend of conviction and dignified anger. Like the anger in the director, Shakespeare brings out the best in actors. His text may be straining for cinematic relevance, but his influence on filmmaking craft is still very much in evidence.

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