rating: ★★★★A squad of soldiers storms a compound in the midst of an Eastern European urban landscape. The city is torn apart, blasted to pieces by mortar rounds. Bullets fly through the air and the soldiers are hesitant to move forward, but their commander urges them on into the fray.
This doesn’t sound like a scene from a Shakespeare play, but that’s exactly what it is in Ralph Fiennes’ updated version of the lesser-known Shakespearean tragedy Coriolanus.
Fiennes, best known for his dramatic turns in Schindler’s List and The English Patient, and for playing the villainous Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter franchise, both acts and directs this film with a script from John Logan (Hugo). Instead of the ancient Roman setting, Fiennes and Logan place the story in a vaguely Eastern European “city called Rome” (the film was shot in Belgrade, Serbia). Out are the tunics and sandals, and in are machine guns, tactical squads, political pundits and newscasters. The one thing that remains the same as the original play is the language — a wise decision on Fiennes and Logan’s part.
Fiennes plays Caius Martius, a celebrated Roman general enforcing a bread ration when the film begins. The citizens of the republic are protesting the ration and see Martius as the chief enemy of the people. As the riot police move in to quell them, Martius marches forward and yells down the rioters alone, showing his contempt for the masses. His words cut into them like swords.
From this first scene, Fiennes’ intensity as Martius is on full display. While the film is certainly interesting from a filmmaking standpoint (a rarity for film adaptations of plays), the performances are much of the film’s highlights. Fiennes, in particular, is blistering. One battle scene, in which he emerges from a cloud of smoke, his bald head splattered in blood, raging at his soldiers to continue their assault, is electrifying. This is the kind of scenery-chewing you could watch for hours. And the character is fascinating: neither a clear-cut hero, nor a villain.
As Martius racks up military successes, the Senate grants him the title of Coriolanus and elects him consul. However, this also engenders hatred from other powerful Romans who scheme to have him banished, using the people’s fickleness to their own advantage.
Too often film adaptations of plays feel like they are merely filmed stage productions, and this is almost always the case with Shakespeare adaptations — Kenneth Branagh’s films notwithstanding. The reason for this is that most don’t want to meddle with Shakespeare’s play, leaving solely the words to do the heavy lifting. Why edit a monologue when if you merely film the actor performing the lines in an unbroken shot, the result will be adequate?
Because this is a film, not a stage play — that’s why.
While the power of the words cannot be denied (which is why it was so important for Fiennes and Logan to leave the Shakespearean language intact), the medium of film itself cannot be ignored. This is where Coriolanus triumphs.
It is primarily a visceral film, something that cannot be said for any Shakespeare adaptations save Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. The film is almost entirely shaky-cam, and although the gimmick has lost much of its potency as it has gotten overused in the past few years, it works effectively here. The camera allows for the action scenes to be potent and intense, while making the dramatic scenes extremely intimate. The decision to film most personal scenes almost entirely in close-up also heightens the immediacy of the play. For Shakespeare, this is certainly a badass film.
It also helps to have a marvelous supporting cast round out the characters. Vanessa Redgrave as Martius’s mother is terrific. She comes from an honoured acting family and brings heft and tenacity to every scene. Jessica Chastain and Brian Cox are also great as Martius’ wife and a Roman senator. Even Gerard Butler is pretty good as the Volscian leader, getting to do a little scenery-chewing, which he had already demonstrated he had a knack for back in 300.
This is Ralph Fiennes’ first film as director and although he still seems occasionally hesitant in his shot setups and pace, he brings a vision to Coriolanus that makes it more than just an accomplished adaptation, but an accomplished film in its own right.
Not every modernization of Shakespeare works, but Coriolanus does so exceedingly well. Partially through the performances and partially through how Fiennes extracts the visceral essence of the play, this is a terrific film that works the material in a new, ingenious way. Also, this is Shakespeare. It never hurts to have impeccable source material.