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Coriolanus (2011)

June 5, 2012

 

written by: John Logan 

produced by: Ralph Fiennes, John Logan, Gabrielle Tana, Julia Taylor-Stanley & Colin Vaines 

directed by: Ralph Fiennes

rating: R (for some bloody violence) 

runtime: 123 min.

U.S. release date: December 2, 2012 (limited) and January 20, 2012 (limited) 

DVD/Blu-ray release date: May 29, 2012

 

When I found out that Coriolanus was one of the lesser-known plays of William Shakespeare, I didn’t feel all that bad that I’d never heard of  it. Being a fan of film adaptations of The Bard’s work in a current setting, especially Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” and Richard Loncraine’s “Richard III” and of the more literal adaptations directed by acclaimed actor Kenneth Branagh, I found myself anticipating “Coriolanus”, which marks the directorial debut of Ralph Fiennes, who also stars as the film’s lead. With the help of screenwriter John Logan (“Gladiator”) and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (“The Hurt Locker”), Fiennes brings an energized and robust character to the big-screen, placing Shakespeare’s tragedy in a modern-day Rome that is battle-scarred and rife with political turmoil. It’s a picture that demands your full attention, not just because of its impenetrable language (which presents its challenges), but for its building drama that has toxic characters surrounded by violence.

As the sworn protector of Rome, General Caius Martius Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes) leads with a cruel Machiavellian hand, showing little regard for those who reside in his nation. They’re all ignorant and helpless peasants to him, who need him to survive – yet his vehement indifference of them increases as he catches their bitterly criticism of his rule. On the flipside is his arch rival, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), a determined guerilla leader, who is watches Coriolanus closely, waiting for just the right moment to take him out. Unlike Coriolanus, who has to deal with divisive whisperings around him, Aufidius is backed by a band of loyal armed comrades. Although they are equals, but as one creates animosity and hatred from his people, the other inspires men to righteous action.

 

 

In an effort to turn around his public image and calm social unrest, Coriolanus is persuaded into politics by his mentor Meneius (Brian Cox), hoping to spin him into some respected war veteran. Also supported this PR move are the two strong women in his life, his quiet wife Virgilia (a crucial but almost wasted Jessica Chastain) and manipulative mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), both of whom have a way of bringing out both hesitancy and insecurity out of Coriolanus. Everything comes to an ugly head when Coriolanus gives in to his nature as bursts of rage and bitter contempt, which finds his campaign for the consulate a wash. Cast out of Rome, he winds up seeking the unlikely help of a suspicious Aufidius, publicly displaying his betrayal to his family as he joins an army out to destroy his homeland.

Fiennes has played Coriolanus on stage in the past and is clearly enthusiastic about bringing a work of Shakespeare’s that has never been adapted for the big-screen to audiences. For his version, Fiennes chose to shoot in Serbia as “a place calling itself Rome” where he takes full production value advantage of war-torn Eastern Europe, shell-shocked environment that becomes  a character in and of itself. It’s a perfect atmosphere to showcase the bloody rawness of corrupt leadership and public mob rage. While his stylistic choices never overwhelm the material, there is a second half that seems to drag out, but only slightly. It’s a minor quibble for a film that is so robustly absorbing, deftly balancing between familial tension and naturalistic action.

In fact, there are times when the “talking head” drama and the brutal action feel like two different films. That’s appropriate though. Fiennes is showing us the extreme differences in the two worlds and how the combustible Coriolanus feels out-of-place in a room full of delegates and politicians (one of them played by a devious James Nesbitt). He’d rather be leading his troops into battle with bullets whizzing past his head and bombs going off beside him. That’s home for him.

 

 

Those combat sequences are crazy intense too, often feeling like actual Iraq War footage. With its saturated lens and ear-ringing sound, it’s easy to forget this comes from the guy who wrote Much Ado About Nothing. It never feels like Fiennes is trying to make Shakespeare accessible for viewers with these battle scenes. He and Logan get quite creative by using CNN-type new coverage for the more expository moments from the play. The recapped events fit perfectly, providing a method of delivery that is familiar to us as we see blowhard pundits sounding off and  the media soaking up every possible angle of the chaotic events.

Admittedly, “Coriolanus” is confusing to follow at times, but fortunately the cast here more than makes up for anything lost in translation to the layman ears. It’s great to see Fiennes so immersed in such a complicated role, essentially a despot who’s enemy is his own prideful and fragile ego. Butler’s work here is by far his best in recent years. It goes without saying, I’d take this blunt and passionate brute over any of these wretched rom-coms he’s been in lately. As antagonistic rivals, these two actors are a perfect match, spilling their vitriol for each other right into out laps. Brian Cox feels at home here, working the dialogue like it’s second nature and for a change it’s nice not to see him as a mysterious baddie.

That title could belong to Volumnia, who can work a roomful of suits just like she can push her son’s buttons. Redgrave is downright frightful as she becomes a thorn in Coriolanus’ side, planting seeds of doubt and guilt in the conflicted leader. The scenes together of mother and son almost neuter Coriolanus, giving us an unspoken history that speaks volumes because of the chemistry between Fiennes and Redgrave.

“Coriolanus” is easily one of the most impressive first-time directorial efforts from an actor that I’ve seem in some time. It really is quite an achievement in how it appeals to those appreciate film and the stage. Fiennes has an expressionistic style that is mesmerizing and it helps that his role is more sinister, more venomous, than any villain he’s played before. Next to his Coriolanus, his Hades looks like a wimpy pyro and his Voldemort seems like a naughty Muppet.

 

 

 

RATING: ***1/2

 

 

 

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