One must search the back-catalog of Shakespeare to unearth the historical drama ‘Coriolanus,’ a tragic play set in the times of Roman Empire about pride, nationalism, love, betrayal, and of course, revenge.
Not the most famous of plays, but certainly a fascinating one, Ralph Fiennes directs the film interpretation while starring as the tragic hero, bringing in a worthy cast of thespians to elevate the beautiful prose. The play tells the story of Roman warrior and leader Caius Martius, as he fights nobly for his country, but is distrustful and deceitful in the eyes of his people.
The story opens with a stern and unforgiving Mr. Fiennes as General Martius, watching over riots concerning a grain shortage, a problem for which he is held in blame by the Romans. On a different front, however, comes another problem in the form of the warring neighbouring Volscians.
Martius takes to battles where he conquers the city and in a dramatic battle, takes on the Volscian commander Tullus Aufidius, played admirably with a powerful brooding stare by Gerard Butler. The two fight heroically, with neither landing a decisive killing blow. Victorius and wounded, Martius returns home to be exalted by his peers and is bestowed with the surname Coriolanus.
In typical Shakespearean fashion, conspiracy and paranoia run rampant. Two conniving and loathsome tribunes quickly urn public opinion back on Coriolanus to the days of the grain shortage. He quickly falls out of favor, being accused of undermining the public in order to rule them without regard, and is ultimately exiled. And so in seeking in vengeance on the city that spurned him, Coriolanus seeks an unlikely alliance with Aufidius.
Ralph Fiennes, in directing and acting for the screen adaptation of Coriolanus, has with him a compelling and oft-overlooked piece of dramatic literature, one that offers himself and several other fine actors a chance to shine, but one that should not be strayed from so far.
For all the captivating drama, emotionally-charged performances, and geopolitical intrigue, in one salient decision, Mr. Fiennes has at times distracted from an otherwise fantastic Shakespearean film translation. He has adapted the play to modern times, with great incongruities. The soldiers used guns, and rioters captured events on cell phones and video cameras, but still everyone exists in a self-contained world of warring territories and a seemingly militaristic ruling body.
The story aches to relate to modern times—perhaps a future dystopia would have been more realistic, but attempting to relate to present day fails. The guns and explosions bring forth more blood and noise, but are ultimately unnecessary.
It would seem in this passion project of his that he suffers from Clint Eastwood-syndrome. In all his desire to be a terrific storyteller and showcase this work that means so much, there are scenes where production is ignored. In sharp focus one moment, and grainy the next, some of the darker scenes are disorienting. The shaky-cam as well, occasionally used to great dramatic extent, is sometimes simply too much to handle.
Still, the acting is superb: Mr. Fiennes goes to a place that only a handful of great actors in our times can find, and Vanessa Redgrave is incredibly compelling and powerful as his mother. Brian Cox lifts the words off the page with both wit and compassion, offering moments of lightness in Shakespearean humour. Though the gorgeous and talented Jessica Chastain is underutilized as Coriolanus’ devoted wife and their young son seems miscast with a lone awkward line, drama builds will each successive scene until the inevitable, bloody conclusion.
Aside from minor detractions, Mr. Fiennes in his work has created an incredibly engrossing, dramatic interpretation of a great Shakespearean work with no shortage of pride, despair, violence and certain death.