Film review: Coriolanus

by Mark Walker

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Director: Ralph Fiennes.
Screenplay: John Logan.
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain, James Nesbitt, Paul Jesson, Lubna Azabal, Ashraf Barhom, Dragan Mieanovie, Jon Snow.

As a personal rule, I don’t watch adaptations of William Shakespeare’s works unless I’ve read the play beforehand. I like to have a frame of reference when it comes to the bard but in this case, I couldn’t resist putting the film off any longer. I’ll always wish that I had found the time but that doesn’t diminish the overall quality or power of this interpretation from first time director Ralph Fiennes.

In a war ravished modern state calling itself Rome, where the people and the military have taken to the streets, hero General Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes) is set to become the leader of the republic. Opponents across the political scale have other ideas though and attempt to orchestrate his downfall and banishment. Once exiled, the furious general forms an alliance with former nemesis Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) and returns home, intent on taking revenge on the city that has scorned him.

Despite the modern alternative setting that Fiennes chooses for his adaptation, he still manages to retain the feel of a play. Some scenes reflect a classic BBC dramatisation and he employs some high quality actors to provide the goods. The classically trained actress, Vanessa Redgrave, is the most comfortable amongst the ensemble as the influential matriarch Volumunia. She delivers her lines with absolute confidence and such an understanding of Shakespeare’s black verse. She’s not alone though; for as little time as they get, the pervasive Jessica Chastain delivers a reserved performance as Coriolanus’ disconsolate wife Virgilia and Gerard Butler proves that his talents lie beyond mere rom-com’s and mindless action movies as Aufidius, the rebel leader of the Volscian army.

Butler’s fellow Scotsman, Brian Cox, also shows some real presence in one of his better roles of recent years, as the Roman senator Menenius. But as the tortured and unrelenting protagonist Caius Martius Coriolanus, it’s Fiennes that takes centre stage, chewing it up in the process and delivering an intense and ferocious performance. It’s often forgotten how good an actor Fiennes really is but this is proof, once again, that given some meaty material, he can really sink his teeth into it. Shakespeare’s works tend to be all about the prose and the performers and as much as this film delivers on that front, it also delivers an effective modern setting with surprisingly brilliant action set-pieces.

There is a real intensity to the politics involved and Fiennes wisely chooses to stick with the original material. It’s hard to balance Shakespeare’s writing’s in a contemporary way and for the most part, it works impressively. However, as the original play is based on a supposed Roman general during the 5th century BC, there are regular references to the common beliefs of this time. “The gods” is an often used piece of dialogue that doesn’t quite fit with the chosen setting and whenever the actors deliver lines with such, it jars slightly. The rest of the film though, is a towering and mesmerising take on the machinations and intrigue of political power.

As always with Shakespeare, it takes a while to tune your ear but the visuals are so effective and the performances so good, that it brings one of his lesser known tragedies, comfortably, to a wider audience. It also heralds the arrival of exemplary actor, Ralph Fiennes, as an exemplary new director.

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