Coriolanus, to put it mildly, is not one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays. Having only just finished reading it myself, I have to say I came away disappointed, and although it never strayed into the realms of boredom or pretension, it can only hold the feeblest of candles to the tragic masterpieces – not only in terms of poetry and dialogue, but in terms of the plot itself and the characterisation found in it. Consider the fact that it is established almost from the word ‘go’ that our tragic hero and his most determined foe, Aufidius, hate each other more than anything in the world. The reasons for this? It doesn’t seem to matter. Even more shocking is a horribly contrived scene half way through between Coriolanus and Aufidius, the nature of which I mustn’t divulge, but which more than suspends disbelief – and Coriolanus doesn’t have the dark humour of, say, Richard III to fall back on as an excuse.
What we have here, then, is something of a puzzle – a thoroughly intelligent and successful adaptation of a second rate play. Ralph Fiennes, making his directorial debut, displays incredible attention to detail both behind and in front of the camera, and the casting of the major roles is superb: Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’ mother, Jessica Chastain as his wife, Brian Cox as his only friend and Gerard Butler as his arch enemy are all perfect for their parts. Pertinent plot changes, character omissions and blending of scenes have also been made – for once actually improving on the source material. The finest comes towards the end of the film, involving the character Menenius (Brian Cox) after his attempt to reason with Coriolanus.
In terms of the setting of his adaptation, as well, Fiennes has shown remarkable insight. Where most modern updates of Shakespeare’s work go wrong is when they choose a setting different to the author’s, and then fail to establish the relevance of the change, or the reasons behind it. Wisely, he has chosen not to alter the locations given in the play – having simply moved it to the present day (albeit a fictionalised version of it). Perhaps the largest success the film has to its credit is the relevance Fiennes establishes effortlessly between the play, set in Ancient Rome, and the conflicts of our generation – not least the Balkans Crisis during the 1990s.
For film aficionados, there are several pertinent decisions made in the technical realm that should impress – especially at the movie’s climax. Something that I, personally, appreciated very much is that not for one moment did this feel like a filmed play, but a genuine piece of cinema.
There are problems, however. I completely understand Fiennes’ desire to make Shakespeare’s dialogue seem natural when the characters are conversing on screen, and for the most part, he succeeds with flying colours. This consists mainly of understatement in many scenes, to make the loud, violent outbursts throughout the film even more memorable and gripping. However, Fiennes may have gone too far – the result being double edged; that, actually, where the dialogue written by Shakespeare should have a little more gusto, it is sometimes downplayed, and this is often of little benefit, if not detrimental to the film.
Perhaps more irritating, though, is the clumsiness of some of the violence in the movie. At times slightly confused and disorientating (whether this was actually an artistic choice by the director, or simply the result of this being his first experience calling the shots, it’s hard to say), some of the action sequences (especially nearer the beginning of the movie) feel a little clunky, and with a play that contains so many opportunities to show off in this department, I sometimes felt that these chances had been wasted or overlooked. By no means applicable to every action scene in the movie, I still found this to be quite off-putting on occasion.
However, even with this taken into full consideration, Coriolanus has certainly made an impression on me. Having transformed a play that not many care for into a compelling, moving film was no easy feat, and it has stimulated my interest as to what Fiennes will move on to next. In my humble opinion, this should be able to stand up with its head held high among any other cinematic Shakespeare adaptation of the last decade. That’s a compliment!
Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (January ’12)