Directed by: Ralph Fiennes
Written: John Logan (screenplay), William Shakespeare (play)
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler and Brian Cox
Caius Martius ‘Coriolanus’ (Ralph Fiennes), a feared and reviled Roman General is at odds with the citizens of Rome when he seeks the position of Consul in the Roman Senate. Coriolanus must ingratiate himself with the people that he loathes in order to secure the office. When the enraged masses refuse to support him, Coriolanus causes a riot that results in his expulsion from Rome. The exiled hero allies himself with Rome’s sworn enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) to take his revenge. This isn’t quite the all out smack down between Martius (Fiennes) and Aufidius (Butler) that some of the marketing would have you believe – instead it’s a great mix of modern and historical democratic structures showing you what a savage General, mutated by war looks like in the modern political realm.
Fiennes directorial debut uses the powerful foundation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and fast-forwards it into a version of the present where the conflict between Rome and their outlying opposition is told in the language of modern Eastern European civil war. Armed soldiers storm through the squalor rubble of industrial cities, absent of beauty. The fighting is bloody and brutal and the focal point of the film Caius Martius (Fiennes) is a vicious, elitist – disgusted with the masses that he fights to protect.
Fiennes directorial performance should be commended. The action is gritty and emotive; the camera slices through warfare to draw the viewer in, but always steadies to compose the violence for full affect. I was very impressed by the accomplished troupe of actors that were collected for Coriolanus – and Fiennes gives them adequate time to enunciate their long lyrical soliloquies. Fiennes resists over directing/editing the biting dialogue scenes – even amongst the chaos. The camera is languid and nurtures the performers, none more so than the regal but powerful Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother. Her pushing, prodding and manipulating influences her son’s decisions and Redgrave demonstrates her effortless range. Brian Cox as Menenius embodies the deep hypocrisy of the political game. Cox elevates the dialogue of this parasitic, callow character, hamstrung by the absence of Coriolanus by amplifying each word with subtle but powerful performative gestures. Gerard Butler as Tullus Aufidius is a more menacing and reserved performance than you’ve seen in 300. He’s a fearsome warrior that provides Coriolanus with a formidable opponent with an interesting and unexpected arc. The supporting cast (John Kani as General Cominius, Jessica Chastain as Virgilia , James Nesbitt as Sicinius, Paul Jesson as Brutus) all have small moments of significance but are predominantly relegated to the background.
Unfortunately Ralph Fiennes plays Coriolanus in all his spitting, spouting, grandiose glory. He’s a tyrannical character, so I understand the motivation to be ‘larger than life’ but I found it increasingly self indulgent actor/director performance. Fiennes like Pacino seems to have forgotten the profound power of subtle performance in the early days of his career e.g. Goeth in Schindler’s List.
For one reason or another Shakespearian cinematic adaptation is divisive. Instantly some cinema goers are off put by the rich and complex Shakespearian language and the naturally greater theatrical construction of the film; other purists feel that speeding up and streamlining texts for cinema is sacrosanct. I thoroughly enjoyed Coriolanus, I relish the chance to get lost in the bard’s language and see new ideas and fresh perspectives on classical tales. It’s main weakness is the protagonist – as the audience, like the masses of Rome, become tired of his elitism and ‘cartoonish’ disgust.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman