Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for some Bloody Violence
Directed by: Ralph Fiennes
Written by: John Logan
(based on the play CORIOLANUS by William Shakespeare)
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, John Kani, James Nesbitt & Paul Jesson
Shakespeare’s last recorded tragedy, CORIOLANUS, has never fully gone on to receive the acclaim of HAMLET or MACBETH. There are quite a few reasons for this. The biggest of which being that this play is not the easiest story to read or watch. The original text suffers from some of the same issues that RICHARD III and ANTONY CLEOPATRA have: far too many scenes that serve as quick exposition and lead for a longer running time than necessary. Ralph Fiennes wisely decided to take on CORIOLANUS as his directorial debut, as well as performing as the title character. Screenwriter John Logan and director Fiennes turned a very complex play into something accessible. The story has been relocated into an alternate present day Rome and modern technology has made its way into the war scenes. Action movie elements and a gritty atmosphere make for a thrilling experience that will delight Shakespeare fans and possibly intrigue those who don’t exactly care for Shakespeare.
Times are tough in Rome due to a war with the nearby terrorist-like Volsci. Civil liberties have been revoked and food is being withheld from citizens. One general in particular, Caius Martius, despises the ordinary citizens and is very public about his low opinion of them. Being sent yet again into battle, Martius confronts the Volscian commander Tullus Aufidius, whom he has encountered on numerous occasions. After coming back home wounded and victorious (despite losing a whole lot of men), Caius Martius is awarded the official name of Coriolanus and runs for consul in the Roman Senate. Unfortunately for the newly named Coriolanus, public opinion is largely negative of him and he is soon betrayed by his own people. Banding with the now disgraced Aufidius, Coriolanus lays siege to his once proud country on a quest driven purely by revenge.
Deciding to tell a Shakespeare play in a unique setting can play out brilliantly (TITUS, RICHARD III) or have a few negative connotations (ROMEO + JULIET). Luckily, CORIOLANUS is brilliantly executed. The incorporation of modern technology serves as a nice way to give exposition in a far more interesting fashion than a stage production or a traditional telling. For example, key information (delivered by messengers in the original text) is glimpsed in news broadcasts giving enough details to further along the plot and not diminishing any momentum. Another stylistic choice used is to play two separate scenes (one of which comes far before the other in actual play itself) at the same time. This means we cut between a relatively interesting conversation between two side characters and Coriolanus on a bloody battlefield littered with explosions. Far be it from me to criticize the work of one of the most celebrated writers in history, but this version of the story plays out somewhat better than the original text.
The cast includes a variety of names that are a little unexpected to see in a modern version of Shakespeare, which also lends to the enjoyment of watching this performers have at it. Ralph Fiennes is astounding as Coriolanus. His character isn’t necessarily meant to be a sympathetic or likable person. Fiennes does lend real human emotion to the man shaped from both war and his domineering mother (played by the great Vanessa Redgrave). Brian Cox and Jessica Chastain are welcomed additions, even if they don’t receive a ton of screen time. Cox gives the most emotional and cynical performance of the bunch, jeering at his idiotic peers and feeling great sadness at witnessing Coriolanus transforming into an all-out monster. The biggest mixed bag is Gerard Butler. In moments, especially the battle scenes, Butler does what he does best in yelling and acting like a bad-ass. In the more quiet and subtle moments, he’s a bit flat.
It’s not as if the film is loaded with action, but there’s a decent amount of on-screen bloodshed and implied violence. These war sequences are extremely well-staged and feel like a genuine modern epic mixing with Shakespeare. Shaky camera work botches a couple of otherwise cool moments, one knife fight is almost confusing as to which character is lunging and which person is being hurt. The biggest compliment I can give CORIOLANUS actually goes to the bard himself. It regards how shockingly relevant this story is in today’s world. It’s not as Shakespeare already hadn’t tackled universal themes (power, love, revenge, guilt, etc.), but there are huge political and social issues brought to life on the screen here that are possibly more prevalent now than they were at the time. The most obvious being the “glory” of war and the debate of dying for those who use you as a pawn. There’s also a not-so-subtle view on classism too. Props to both Fiennes and Logan for revamping an already relevant old text in an even more compelling setting.
CORIOLANUS isn’t going to convince someone who already doesn’t care for Shakespeare into automatically loving the man’s work. It’s an interesting take on a lesser known play that will delight fans of the bard and interest people who are indifferent to old English literature. I’d argue that the film is worth watching purely to see Fiennes and Butler firing guns at each other while shouting Shakespearean dialogue. It’s pretty awesome that an adaptation like this still can be made in modern times and be absolutely compelling. There are a couple of problems (Gerard Butler’s mixed bag performance and some shaky camera work), but Fiennes dominating role and the fantastic social commentary far outweigh them. The story of CORIOLANUS holds up far better today than it probably did in Shakespeare’s era. This film comes highly recommended for those interested in this sort of thing.