Had Coriolanus been in wider release before New Year’s, it would likely have made my list of favorites for the year.
If you’ve ever thought that Shakespeare had some great ideas but you couldn’t get past the language, then you really should check out Coriolanus. Ralph Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan transpose the play into a more modern setting and setting the language into a modern context makes it both easier to understand and more devastatingly beautiful.
Gaius Martius [Fiennes] has been defending Rome from would-be invaders led by Tullus Aufidius [Gerard Butler] in a very bloody series of battles. The two go toe-to-toe in a brutal fight that is a showcase for their mutual hatred. In the end, the war interrupts them, but Rome wins and Aufidius is left to retreat and lick his wounds.
Martius returns to Rome a hero, but he has no tact – and no love for the Roman public – so when the senate names him consul – on condition that he wins over the people – his lack winds up getting him banished. In his frustration and anger, he joins Aufidius and together they march on Rome.
You would never know that Coriolanus was Fiennes first effort as a director. It’s beautifully paced and he gets great performances from a good many well-trained British actors we’ve seen before. Brian Cox is splendid as his ally in the senate, Menenius – a conciliatory voice of reason; Vanessa Redgrave is his mother, Volumina – a true battleaxe is ever there was one; Jessica Chastain is his wife – loyal to a fault, but not given a great many lines [Chastain makes her a sympathetic character through demeanor as much as anything else]; James Nesbitt is one of the two wily Tribunes who provoke the people against Martius, and so on.
Logan’s script puts much of Shakespeare’s exposition into the mouths of newcasters and, in one remarkable sequence, a pair of political pundits. Fiennes stages these sequences with a scrupulous attention to detail – they feel exactly the same as things we’ve actually seen on newscast or news/political commentary shows.
The battle sequences are, likewise, staged in a believable, suitably gritty manner – people [soldiers and civilians alike] die bitter deaths, or suffer wounds that leave noticeable scars. Both Fiennes and Butler attack their characters with a ferocity that commands the screen without ever seeming over the top.
While things do not end well – Coriolanus is, after all, a Shakespearean tragedy – it remains as trenchant a statement on human foibles as ever. Shakespeare could take a bit of history and a theme like ‘pride goeth before a fall’ and turn it into a masterpiece. In Coriolanus, he also touched on the bonds of family [however odd]; the perceived differences of class [Coriolanus could be set in the current American 1% vs. 99% world], and the price for heedless ambition.
Coriolanus is fast-paced and more exciting than you might expect from an adaptation of Shakespeare. It is fascinating and entertaining – and heralds the arrival of a brilliant director.
Final Grade: A+