Coriolanus a Fine Shakespeare Twist
By Kristin Battestella
Like most of the viewing public, I didn’t pay much attention to Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s least performed play Coriolanus as it made the festival and limited theater rounds. Despite its quality cast and interesting looks, some audiences may have also been put off by yet another modern retelling of the Bard. Forget your hesitations, for Coriolanus is indeed a fine presentation of Shakespearean statements and modern political intrigue.
Caius Martius (Fiennes) rebuffs the starving Roman people and fights his long time enemy Aufidius (Gerard Butler), the leader of the Volscian army, before capturing the city of Corioles. Martius returns home honored by Senator Menenius (Brian Cox) as Coriolanus, and his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) convinces him to run for consul. Jealous tribune Sicinius (James Nesbitt), however, seeks to undo Martius’ glory, pushing Coriolanus into an alliance that will threaten all of Rome…
Shakespeare, a Modern Muckraker?
Let’s get some of the negatives out of the way first. Part of Coriolanus’ problem is right there in its title. Honestly, if people can’t pronounce it or even say it without a chuckle, they aren’t going to go see it, and it takes a half hour for the eponymous character to earn his name. Debut director and star Fiennes (The English Patient, Harry Potter, Schindler’s List) and screenwriter John Logan (Any Given Sunday, Skyfall) place Shakespeare’s politics on the modern battlefield, but keep his original syntax, and at first, the dialogue might not seem all that Shakespearean. It’s just some soldiers giving lots of lofty speeches and declarations, right? Once the “A place called Rome” title card and the obviously Latin names pop up, however, audiences unaware – or misled by the trailer – might be quite confused. I knew nothing of the play before my viewing, and accustomed, spoon fed audiences may be further bewildered by the quality gray of Coriolanus. For whom do we root? The players and happenings aren’t clear-cut, and hectic editing and fast street violence will be tough to follow. The bright outdoor photography and smart uses of news footage are very pleasant in highlighting the war torn and graffiti ridden locations, but I wish the camera had pulled back a little for the opening battles. With smoother camera work, the early action swift and quality soliloquies wouldn’t feel so uneven. The contrasting, too dark interiors also create what appears to be a mix of genres that shouldn’t be together. Did I also mention how the dialogue is so soft compared to all the violence? These two hours may seem dry to start, granted. Perhaps it takes too long to get to the meat of the tale – half the film, in fact. Once the twists and tables turn, however, Coriolanus makes for dang interesting stuff.
Coriolanus seems off to a somewhat rocky start, but the aforementioned media uses and modern heavies beautifully bring Shakespeare’s politics into the 21st century. Everyone here knows what’s happening by watching the news – the aptly tongue in cheek Fidelis TV network – and crowds record the action with their cell phones. Coriolanus must go on a talk show for his campaign, which is replete with compromising, ass kissing, and chewing one up and spitting one out. It’s also totally bemusing to see the political pundits arguing in ye olde English, and the way the officials supposedly speaking for the public manipulate the fickle people for their own advantage is downright eerie for a post 9/11 world. Personality and spin win it for the politicians instead of those more capable of doing the job, muckrakers raise up one who may be rough around the edges only to vilify and betray him later, and everyone wants something for nothing – these are ridiculously relevant topics from Fiennes. Martius hates the people because they are so fooled and can take down the whole system with their sway, but his harsh honesty could have been good for Rome. Instead, Coriolanus is filled with subtext and tragedy all around. Who’s the victim here – the fooled people, the sold out senate, or Coriolanus? The ending is a little abrupt and the people we want to see get their dues don’t, but this plotting is all very fitting. I’m surprised Coriolanus has never been filmed before, and after knowing nothing of the play going into my viewing, I really enjoyed the turn of events here.
The Worthy Thespians
Coriolanus would suffer immensely if its lead weren’t on form, but Fiennes delivers the expected top notch as both a modern action badass and Bard talking artiste. We may not think of him primarily as a physical star, but his intense, hand-to-hand, claustrophobic combat feels authentic. The ruthless Martius aims his gun at common folk and sprouts arrogant witticisms before going to battle – his mano y mano knife fight with Aufidius is heavy, dirty, almost intimate in their hatred. We believe Martius is loyal and honorable thanks to his action prowess and service to Rome, but there is an underlying disturbia to his having too much power thanks to his proud, unflinching attitude. As Coriolanus, he doesn’t want the glory, politics, and cameras in his face where those closest to him would compromise his beliefs, shut his mouth, and manipulate him for their own gain in hopes of riding his coat tails to the top. Is Coriolanus an uncouth, elitist bigot? Yes. Does he deserve how the tables turn upon him? Perhaps not. Thanks to Fiennes’ contorted, in your face performance and transformations in appearance, one almost feel bad for Martius as he is humbled and risen again. Of course, there are many reasons to dislike Martius, flawed and opinionated as he is, but Fiennes delivers on all the action and arguments. I’m surprised more awards didn’t happen for Coriolanus and its performers.
Now, why is it we only hear about 300 star Gerard Butler when he is doing some crappy comedy or Hollywood party infamy if he’s making quality pictures like this? His Aufidius doesn’t say much and perhaps Butler is a little too soft spoken or seemingly uncomfortable with the Shakespeare script, but his natural accent does wonders for an angry Bard delivery. Strong secondary leading parts like this are perfect for Butler. Aufidius has serious weight, substance, and guerilla leader badassery. When he proclaims, “He’s mine or I am his,” we believe Aufidius’ Shakespeare style and battlefield desperation. The Volscian leader must silently watch as glory follows Martius, but he has the love of his people and the eventual change a roo for these two is wonderful. Aufidius should be pleased to see Martuis’ comeuppance, yet he welcomes him to his cause in a timeless statement on how enemy soldiers have more in common with each other than those for whom they fight and serve. He worries about Martius’ superiority, yes, but isn’t so big headed himself to take a backseat or use any opportunity for his cause. Unfortunately, when Coriolanus doesn’t lead Aufidius to victory and Roman glory…. Of course, Butler doesn’t have nearly as much screen time as Fiennes, making their ongoing battle somewhat one sided. It’s strange to think of him as under utilized in what is a very strong performance, but that’s due to his stinky films, not the juicy here. I wish Aufidius would have been developed further, but Butler looks dynamite and holds up in action and performance to Fiennes.
By contrast, I was surprised by how out of place Jessica Chastain (The Help, Zero Dark Thirty) seems as Martius’ safe at home but worrying wife Virgilia. I haven’t seen all of her work, but her modern glam and buzz pretty do not come across right in Coriolanus. Her poor handling of the yesterday’s dialogue seems young and American inexperienced amid a cast of British heavyweights. Is it just a thinly drawn character, a simple wife meant to be weak? One wonders how she can deliver these lines with a straight face, and her few scenes with Fiennes are too awkward. Fortunately, Vanessa Redgrave (Julia, Atonement) is ever classy at Martius’ scene stealing mother Volumnia. Her delivery is smooth, casual, and upscale despite what turns out to be a very ugly role. Redgrave keeps Volumnia graceful yet so ready to explode under the surface. Coriolanus is what we would call a mama’s boy thanks to Volumnia’s heavy-handed power wielding thru him. He knows it, but can’t escape her long political arm. I was shouting at the television and holding my breath for their final scene! Again, I’m surprised no awards followed, although audiences almost expect this type of meaty performance from Redgrave. Likewise, Brian Cox (Troy, X2) is effortlessly Shakespearean as Senator Menenius. Seriously, you imagine he speaks this way at home! Menenius is slick and suavely tries to work the political middle ground– but that’s fall on your sword territory if there ever was any. James Nesbitt (Murphy’s Law, The Hobbit) is always fun to see as well. His plotting Sicinius lays it on so thick that the public doesn’t even realize he is telling them what they want to hear purely for his own gain. That sounds so familiar!
Not Your Daddy’s Bard
Despite its modern setting – or perhaps even because of it – Coriolanus does well in its straight Shakespeare telling, although I would have liked a bit more depth or fleshing out in some of the player motivations. Where’s the spin or expanded character development? Shakespeare seems a little too weak or straightforward here, and the support is too broadly drawn. When one is adapting something a touch inferior, often some form of Hollywood twist happens instead of a beat for beat interpretation. I was expecting some matricide or adulterous scandal to cap it all off! Thankfully, Coriolanus’ modern warfare bleak looks good. It may seem like such a simple thing, but you can really see who is who amid the bright, on form fighting, weapons, and uniforms. Like some of that crazy camerawork, there is a fair amount of blood and death in your face, but the gritty violence doesn’t overtake the subtly fascist looking fashions, parades, and pomp. The real world Serbia locales add to the fighting as well. There’s no need to spend millions for historical Roman battles when you can say more by putting your ensemble in contemporary, bittersweet reality. Again, the subtitles are necessary indeed, and the blu-ray quality is a must. I waited to receive Coriolanus on blu-ray rather than indulge my Netflix Instant Watch, but I was disappointed in the rental copy’s abundance of previews and blink and you miss it Making Of featurette. The commentary is great, but I expected more of the proverbial book to screen analysis and extensive behind the scenes documentation.
Truly, Coriolanus is a successful, ambitious adaptation, but it doesn’t seem as blockbuster grandiose Kenneth Branagh Shakespeare to the masses opus as it could be. There’s nothing wrong with a smaller, subtle commentary on the Bard and the world today – I wish we had more mid sized, intimate films like this. However, Coriolanus’ ultimate problem is that it isn’t sure who its audience is. Modern action viewers will like the battlefield scenery and rousing military Shakespeare, but they may not appreciate all the high end, confusing dialogue in between. Likewise, die-hard Shakespeare enthusiasts may be disappointed that this biggest adaptation yet of this little done title is not in its original setting. Further still, the only people who will get a film like this are those who can understand the Shakespeare as modern political propaganda or parallel intelligentsia audiences. The cultured film fan who seeks out Coriolanus will adore it, but this picture isn’t a feel good general public movie meant for the CGI obsessed, popcorned, and brainwashed masses. Anymore today it feels as though that’s why most pictures are made! Coriolanus will take multiple study viewings, but Shakespearean classrooms can also enjoy an assessment. Although it was quite enjoyable to go into Coriolanus relatively cold and unfamiliar with its source, this adaptation does what it should do – get people to read the dang play!
Disjointed, early unevenness notwithstanding, Coriolanus gets better as it goes on. As the star and the film’s director, Ralph Fiennes demands your attention. He proves that Shakespeare is still very relevant and can be transposed to today with all plot, power, and politics intact. Older, more thought provoking audiences looking for sophisticated action, performances, and statements should see Coriolanus ASAP.