Directed By: Ralph Fiennes
Written By: John Logan, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, Vanessa Redgrave, James Nesbitt, Dragan Micanovic, Lubna Azabal, and Ashraf Barhorm
Director of Photography: Barry Ackroyd, Editor: Nicolas Gaster, Production Designer: Ricky Eyres, Original Music: Ilan Eshkeri
Rated: R for some military violence.
Modern day Shakespeare adaptations are a tricky business. Sometimes, they come in the form of teen comedies that forgo the language in order to bring in a bigger (and often more pedestrian) audience (She’s The Man; 10 Things I Hate About You). Otherwise, the coursing of the language against a modern day setting often feels like an awkward clash of sound and image. Where is Kenneth Branagh when you need him?
But here comes the deft directorial debut of actor Ralph Fiennes in the form of the often forgotten but masterful Coriolanus, an extremely bold adaptation of the Shakespeare military history. Having seen a magnificent production of the play a couple years back, I’m always surprised that Coriolanus never gets as much love as it should. It’s a deeply cynical play with a number of strong complex issues about how our military and political leaders often use and abuse their power. Using a modern day setting but keeping certain details faithful to the play, Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan have masterfully brought together the political aspects of the Shakespeare’s play to a relevant audience in today’s age of inequality.
For those who haven’t read or seen the play, Coriolanus will be a treat, as it packs a dense and wallop of a story. The film is set in Rome, a one closer to a modern city than the one of ancient times, and war is fought with assault rifles instead of swords. Fiennes plays the title character, Caius Martius (Coriolanus is a title he is given after a crucial battle), a bold and brutal general of Rome with little care for the people and plenty of lust for the battlefield. When the people protest against a lack of food, Caius stares them down and Fiennes delivers a cold speech with the same brutal eyes he brought to Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. Caius lives for war, most notably fighting against the state of Antium and his bitter rival, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler).
But Caius can’t stand the political field, especially considering the pleading of his good friend Menenius (Brian Cox) and his mother Volumnia (a commanding Vanessa Redgrave) to become a leader of the people. When Coriolanus is pushed to become join the counsel, he does so begrudgingly. When he must follow tradition and asks the people to accept his rule, he bitterly mocks such a tradition and refuses to show them his scars. But two Roman senators (James Nesbitt and Dragan Micanovic, chewing scenery in the best way), aim to have the people rise up against the general, using his grabbing of power as a sign of rising totalitarianism.
Despite being 400 years old, I won’t spoil the twists of Coriolanus’s narrative, but the film turns our ideas of how political campaigns and military campaigns can crumble and change so quickly. It’s certainly one of Shakespeare’s more cynical plays, and Logan keeps most of the drama intact without having to sacrificing any major details. The one part that doesn’t necessarily work is the film’s midway twist when the senators turn the people, which feels just a bit too quick and easy. Part of this is the modern setting, which strips the artifice from the drama that made the turn more believable, though part is certainly Shakespeare’s distrust and mocking of common citizens.
The modern Roman setting works particularly well in bringing the film’s timeless politics to fit today’s era of worldwide protests, whether in the Middle East, Europe, or right here in downtown Manhattan. Shot by The Hurt Locker cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, the film’s war sequences are intense and chaotic, while the language is aptly carried by the film’s excellent cast (though watching the CNN news casts with Shakespearean language borders on parody). Fiennes not only brings a bold and bitter strength to the unique protagonist of the drama, but his in adept enough to let the subtleties of Shakespeare’s language tell the story, his visuals more noted for the below-the-line technical works on display. The revelation, not surprisingly, is Vanessa Redgrave, who knows how to command each word that drops from her tongue, bulging her eyes and perfectly capturing the nuances of Volumna’s famous monologue near the end of the film.
Coriolanus may not be the greatest Shakespeare on film, but because the play is not as well known, it’s a must see because it brings to life one of his most underrated. Fiennes played the role on the West End back in 2001, and since then, our political and military landscapes have only become more and more entrenched together, our people less trustful of government, but more susceptible to easy forms of protest that they don’t understand. In an age of both Tea Parties and Occupy movements, Coriolanus shows us perhaps how little power the people may truly have.