Directors: Ralph Fiennes
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain, James Nesbitt and Brian Cox
Release date: 4th June 2012
Coriolanus is not one of Shakespeare’s best known tragedies; if Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet form the premier league, then it languishes glowering in the first division with its loutish mate Titus. This new film adaptation by Ralph Fiennes aims to bring the play to a new audience, updating the setting from Rome sometime in the 5th century BC to what appears to be a modern Balkan state (judging from the architecture, although it is still called Rome).
The story begins with Rome under martial law. Coriolanus (Fiennes) is a rigid military leader, who has incited the ire of the common people by blocking their access to the city’s limited grain stores. “What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues, that rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, make yourselves scabs,” he sneers at the proletariat leaders. It’s fair to say that Coriolanus is not a man of the people. However when the army of Volscia approaches, led by Tullus Aufidious (Butler) Rome finds it has need of Coriolanus.
The General fights a bloody ground war against Aufidious, emerging victorious although Aufidious escapes the field of conflict. Upon returning to Rome, Coriolanus’ ambitious mother (Redgrave) convinces him to seize the moment and run for consul, an exalted political position. The General agrees, but is outmanoeuvred by scheming senators who convince the mob that he will be a tyrant. Coriolanus rages against this and condemns both senate, political process and the people. Words which see him branded a traitor and exiled. Of course the brooding protagonist plots to have revenge on Rome itself, allying with his former enemies the Volscians.
Fiennes directs the film decently, opening out the play to include several action set-pieces that owe something to the ‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’ video games. The problem is that Coriolanus as a character is not a lot of fun to hang around with. Unlike many of Shakespearian protagonists he does not soliloquise to the audience about his thoughts, this has the effect of making him rather opaque and unsympathetic. In truth the character seems to be a bit of a fascist, something it is rather hard to get behind. It works fine in Richard III because he’s a moustache twirling villain that one takes relish in seeing get their comeuppance. Coriolanus lacks the magnetism and charism of a good villain. With whom should we identify? Only the senator Menenius Agrippa (Cox) seems to be a properly sympathetic character.
Fiennes is of course one of the great stage actors of our time, on screen he can be fiery or cold and reptilian. Coriolanus for all his fury is not a warm character and I found his performance distancing. Gerard Butler is surprisingly good, there is a fierce anger burning in his eyes. It may be heretical to say this, but I rather wished the actors had swapped roles. Among the supporting players Brian Cox and Vanessa Redgrave are excellent. Jessica Chastain unfortunately struggles to make an impact as Coriolanus’ wife.
I’m not familiar with the original text, so I cannot say how good an adaptation this is, or how much has been pruned by screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, Hugo and the upcoming Skyfall are among his impressive credits). As shot by ace cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker, United 93) the film looks great but as a piece of entertainment it isn’t a lot of fun.
Rating: 3 stars
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