An aggressive and intense adaptation of an obscure William Shakespeare play, Coriolanus (2011), is actor Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut, and—aside from Shakespeare buffs, the film’s most obvious potential fanbase—is best for, interestingly enough, science fiction and/or war movie fans.
By “updating” the play, having the costumes and sets be contemporary—the flick looks like it takes place in some modern post-commie Eastern Bloc nation—but while keeping the dialog true to the Bard’s text, a schism is created: Because so many science fiction films use English actors speaking stiltedly (as representatives of either the future or of a superior alien race), it feels as if we are watching some fascist Alternate Earth *.
This film would be a good double-feature with either Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, or The Hunger Games—violent militaristic fantasies (as opposed to Children of Men, a film that might share an aesthetic with Coriolanus, but not an initial temperament; Coriolanus also shares a “look” with Costa-Gavras’ excellent State of Siege).
That said, Coriolanus is a damn good war film—the story follows General Martius (Fiennes) as, after a stunning victory, he is offered the position of consul. But to accept the job, the proud, brutal warrior would have to “bow” to the mob, a gaggle of rabble he despises—which is common knowledge the crowd resents.
The politics often seem overly complicated and obtuse (which reinforces the feeling we are watching a nation being “balkanized”), but then a gory knife-fight or fiery explosion grabs our attention: this is a gruff, serious vision of combat—backed by excellent camerawork and production design, and truly reinforces the character’s state of mind. Here, action is character.
For a first-timer, director Fiennes does a good job; while I’m not such a fan of shaky-cam combat scenes, the use of “TV news” footage was intercut into the action and Shakespearian text masterfully.
The battles often invigorate this film, when chunks of complicated dialog are dumped on the audience.
The thesps (especially Brian Cox as a wily patrician senator, and Vanessa Redgrave as Martius’ mom) are all top-notch, delivering convoluted passages in a natural and unforced manner—but they’re almost too good: I’m someone who enjoys Shakespeare, especially cinematic adaptations like Olivier’s Richard III and Hamlet, Welles’ Macbeth, and the Russian King Lear (1971; directed by Grigor Kozintsev), all of which tend to be “theatrical” in one way or another.
(I’m also a fan of Shakespearian updates or retellings, like Basil Dearden’s “Jazz Othello” All Night Long; or Forbidden Planet (inspired by The Tempest); and even West Side Story (Romeo & Juliet).)
But with Coriolanus, I was grateful for the subtitles on the DVD. Usually spoken at a fast pace, the dialog is delivered by a multitude of accents, with some very thick Scots and Northern UK accents.
Other problems I might have with the film are plot and character related, and I feel stem from the source material: While complicated, the character of General Martius, a.k.a. Coriolanus himself, is rather shallow, and very much a rude lout—not unsympathetic, but very close.
(This might just me, but often, it felt as if Fiennes was channeling late British character actor, and two-time Kubrick performer, Leonard Rossiter, with Fiennes even imitating the man’s voice and mannerisms. Pretty weird and distracting…)
Philosophically, I greatly enjoyed Fiennes’ scenes when he rails against bending his will to the demands of the masses. As self-destructive as it was, I understood Martius’ temperament towards acquiescence: his independence is admirable, if bullheaded, but it is also what has made him a great warrior.
Perhaps not as elitist as its main character, Coriolanus will be a worthwhile viewing experience for quite a few, bringing violence, excitement and food for thought.
* = (see also Land of the Giants, various episodes of Doctor Who, Michael Radford’s 1984, or Nazi-planet from 1960s Star Trek)