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Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes, 2011)

February 1, 2012

Originally written for Reel Time, now at Sound on Sight

Many of the more interesting Shakespeare adaptations in film history are those that tend to be furthest removed from the stage tradition of the plays; changing the settings and eras, applying different preoccupations, and even dispensing with the writer’s prose altogether in some cases. Regardless of their overall quality, the likes of Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and Ran, Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books, 10 Things I Hate About You, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and Michael Almereyda’s 2000 version of Hamlet are all, at the very least, in possession of a striking quality, positive or otherwise. Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut Coriolanus, adapted from the play of the same name, is akin to the latter two of those cited films in that it keeps the Shakespearian dialogue but presents a modern setting rife with contemporary technology.

By many accounts the most political of all of Shakespeare’s work, the story concerns a war hero general Caius Martius, played by Fiennes himself, finding political opponents orchestrating his downfall and banishment when he is poised to rise to the position of leader of the republic. Contributing to the conflicts are Martius’ enemy and eventual means of revenge on Rome, Aufidius, and Volumnia, his autocratic mother. Shakespeare films are often saved or at least helped by their performances, and supporting the reliable Fiennes is a collection of game turns from Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Gerard Butler, James Nesbitt, Paul Jesson and Jessica Chastain. Butler provides a career best in his portrayal of rebel leader Aufidius, in an effectively fearsome depiction despite limited screen time. Redgrave’s performance as Volumnia is, by far, the film’s highlight, with the actress relishing in the role of the fiercely ambitious, fiery, conniving matriarch; she’s a magnetic presence to watch.

The “striking quality” that Coriolanus possesses is its realisation of the political tragedy in the context of contemporary warfare. Though maintaining the play’s Rome setting in name, the film’s locations have a clear Eastern European vibe, and the sequences of combat visually resemble a combination of various conflicts documented in the last few decades, from the Balkans to Iraq. The cinematographer for this is Barry Ackroyd who shot The Hurt Locker, and aesthetic similarities to that film are very strong here. Coriolanus also expands on a brief motif of Luhrmann’s Shakespeare adaptation, using news television as a key player in both covering more of the source material and reflecting it in a contemporary light. Respected British reporter and presenter Jon Snow makes recurring appearances as an anchorman, amusingly prone to iambic pentameter usage, on a BBC News 24-like programme that serves to inform the film’s characters of what other players are up to and where, and what certain individuals think of the happenings.

The aesthetic choices are frequently inspired, but the, for lack of a better word, gritty look sometimes feels at odds with the content outside of scenes focused on the civil war conflict and uprisings. The adaptation also suffers in that its slavishness to the play’s structural concerns mean that the middle of the film plays host to what essentially feels like a climax, causing the remainder of Coriolanus to swiftly lose momentum; tension dissipates and the stakes of the story do not feel very high at all despite the threat of an invading march on Rome. Coriolanus has never before been adapted to film, and its story, as presented here, is not terribly engaging on a consistent level. Fiennes’ version is a serviceable interpretation with some strong attributes, but it just never excels as a whole.

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