FlixChatter Review: Coriolanus (2011)

Coriolanus is one of the renown playwright’s lesser-known works that Ralph Fiennes has played on stage back in 2000. It’s sort of a passion project for him so naturally he knows this character inside and out. For his directorial debut, the British thespian translates the story as a modern wartime film set in a ‘place calling itself Rome.’ So the story is not set in the Italian capital city but a model of an urban war zone complete with tanks, machine guns, and camouflage. The media coverage and TV talking heads reveal a society in turmoil. Grain is scarce and its people impoverished and hungry, unsatisfied by the way the government, particularly its General Caius Martius, treats them.

Fiennes set up the scene using found footage of people looting, rioting, demonstrating, carrying banners of their general with a big red ‘x’ on it. From the exchange between Martius and the people, it’s clear that he has no regard for them. Martius is a warrior, a man of battle, but not exactly a man of nor for the people.

Even in the time he goes to the people to appeal to them and ask for their votes, Martius (who’s now called Coriolanus as an honor following the battle in Corioles) does it reluctantly. He’s not keen on the idea of promoting himself, and the idea of political campaigning repulses him.

The second act is much more politically charged, quite a contrast to the vehemently action-packed first act. The battle scenes between the Romans and the Volscian army, led by Tulus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) are reminiscent of The Hurt Locker as it shares the same choreographer, Oscar-winner Barry Ackroyd. The knife fight between the two arch nemesis is brutal and very, very bloody.

Just like most of Shakespeare’s work, its hero shares complicated relationship with the people around him. His relationship with his mother Volumnia is one of the film’s major themes, brought to life by a pair of strong stage performers, Fiennes and the great Vanessa Redgrave. A conversation with Martius’ wife reveals that Volumnia has raised her son as a soldier that bred such an extreme conviction on his part…

Had I a dozen sons, I had rather eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action

The person who believes in Martius the most is Senator Menenius (Brian Cox), he’s practically his biggest cheerleader in his quest for political life. But the rest of the senate, led by the two Tribunes Brutus and Sicinius, rally against him and their schemes of manipulating the crowd gets Martius banished from the city.

From then on, what follows is the electrifying scenes between Coriolanus and Aufidius, as he appeals to fight Rome together with the Volscian army. The two sworn enemies hate each other, surely, but there is deep mutual admiration between the two. Aufidius is perhaps the kind of leader Coriolanus wishes to be as he’s courageous, but also loved by his men and his people. The homoerotic undertones is quite palpable here, and Fiennes revealed in the commentary (and in this article) that it’s what Shakespeare intended it to be, though more to suggest an obsession than a literal romantic attraction.

The political relevance of the world we’re in today and all the maneuvering and manipulation that’s going on is as thrilling as the action. Fiennes has proven himself a capable director here, surrounding himself with a massively talented cast and crew, starting with John Logan (Gladiator, Hugo) developing a taut script, and filming on locations in Serbia under Ackroyd’s capable hands as a cinematographer.

He’s also able to cajole great performances from his cast, and he’s assembled a wonderful set of actors to do the job. The critics praised Redgrave’s performance left and right. Indeed she was marvelous and also Jessica Chastain in a small role as Coriolanus’ wife, but I was mostly taken by Brian Cox’s performance as the seasoned politician Menenius. How this Scottish thespian has never been nominated for an Oscar is a travesty. “Coriolanus has grown from man to dragon…” his character said in one heart-wrenching scene, and it’s palpable that Coriolanus’ betrayal cuts deep into his soul.

Fiennes himself is at his most effective, delivering his lines with sheer clarity and intelligence. Coriolanus is a tough character to sympathize with, but Fiennes gives a fascinating look into a flawed antihero. He’s also chosen the perfect actor as his adversary. In interviews Fiennes said that he had wanted a ‘warrior’ to play Aufidius and who could be more fitting than King Leonidas himself. But just like in 300, Butler is just as efficient in the action scenes as in those that demand emotional intensity. The highlights in the film are no doubt the fierce face/off between Fiennes and Butler and the two men seem to relish in them. The knife fight apparently took two days to film and it’s as cutthroat as one can get. There’s barely any music playing during a lot of the action scenes, it feels authentically gritty and realistic, almost documentary-like at times but without the overused hand-held style.

My only gripe is that the scenes between the politicians and the people often feel overly-simplified. I understand that the timeline perhaps isn’t as swift as depicted in the film, but it just feels like thing happen way too fast how Coriolanus goes from hero to scorn exile. I’m not too keen with James Nesbitt’s performance either as one of the tribunes, he feels somewhat miscast in this role. The scenes of the Roman politicians with the crowd also didn’t seem to work as well, perhaps it’s more suitable for stage performance but it just didn’t feel right on film. Coriolanus as a character also isn’t as compelling because there’s barely any reflective moments that gives us insights into his motivations and why he despise the people the way he does.

Those are minor quibbles however, I thoroughly enjoyed this film, and apart from the first act and the very last scene, it’s thankfully not as violent as I had thought. The use of Shakespearean language in modern setting is tricky but I think Fiennes and the cast pulled it off brilliantly. It feels a bit odd at first but after a while I enjoyed listening to it. I’m glad I ended up watching this on Blu-ray so I can turn on the caption however, as it helps me grasp the story a lot better.

Final Thoughts: If you’re looking for an intriguing political thriller filled with great performances, then this is the film for you. Once you get past the Shakespearean language, it’s surprisingly accessible and its themes are eerily relevant to our world today.

It’s been nearly two years since I first heard about Ralph Fiennes’ passion project. Well, after appearing in my most-anticipated list for TWO years in a row, I finally bought the Blu-ray. I’ve actually watched it twice, one with Fiennes’ commentary and one without. If only the special features had been more robust though, it’d be nice if it had more scenes of the on-location shoot in Serbia like I talked about here. Still, it’s certainly well worth the purchase.

4 out of 5 reels

Have you seen CORIOLANUS? Do share your thoughts on the film.

40 thoughts on “FlixChatter Review: Coriolanus (2011)

  1. I’m definitely moving this up the ol’ Netflix queue because of your excellent review, Ruth. And yes, it is baffling that the work of Brian Cox isn’t rewarded as it should be. Thanks for this.

    1. Awesome Michael. I’m curious to hear what you think. For sure if you’re a fan of Mr. Cox’s work you won’t be disappointed on that front.

  2. Ted S.

    Sounds good, definitely will give this one a rent soon. I would prefer to have seen it on the big screen but Blu-ray is still good.

  3. I am glad that it lived up to your expectations Ruth. I enjoyed it too, although I think I would have enjoyed it more if it wasn’t such a passion project and less indulgent from Fiennes, but that is just a minor point.

    Hope you are having a good weekend!!

    1. Yes matey, I’m glad too 😀 Yeah it does feel indulgent at times, and Fiennes seems to love Coriolanus the character more than he should, ahah. I think I enjoyed the scenes with Brian Cox the most, oh and Gerry of course 😉

  4. Great review Ruth. Mine just went out this morning. We seem to agree on similar points. Butler was absolutely rubbish though 😉 (just kidding, he was good) Glad you enjoyed it. I did too. I’m a massive fan of Shakespeare and this didn’t disappoint.

    1. Ahah, I’m glad you are only kidding as we can’t be friends any more if you’re not 😉 Cool that we even agree on the rating, Mark, I’m certainly glad I bought the Blu-ray!

        1. Ahah, I’m only kidding Mark. I mean there’s this blogger who teases me incessantly about Butler and we’re still friends 😀 I hated The Ugly Truth and The Bounty Hunter, those are simply dreadful (and terrible co-stars on top of it) and I think Gerry himself is aware of it. P.S. I LOVE YOU is a good movie though, I think it’s a sweet and poignant rom-com and it’s not as banal or silly like the other two. I think you should give that a try if you haven’t already 🙂

          1. I have to say that P.S. I Love You, doesn’t appeal to me Ruth. Im not big on those type of film’s. If it ever shows on tv, I’ll maybe give it a look but otherwise it’ll pass me by I think. Have you seen the short film that was released along with the Watchmen? “Tales of the Black Frieghter”, it Butler that’s in it but I can’t seem to get a hold of it anywhere.

            1. Ahah, fair enough Mark. No, I’ve never seen ‘Tales of the Black Freighter,’ but isn’t that an animated feature?? I don’t know where you could get that, maybe it’s on Youtube or somewhere else online.

              Btw, have you seen this straight-to-dvd action flick ‘Shattered’ (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0489664/) that Pierce Brosnan produced? It stars him and Butler and was supposed to be called Butterfly on a Wheel but they changed it to be so darn generic. It’s not great, but worth a watch if you like Butler in more of a thriller genre.

          2. Coriolanus is usually one of my favotriue Shakespeare plays. I remember the first time I saw it (1973, I think) when a few of us sneaked off a boring accountancy course and drove to Stratford my first visit to the RST! I can’t remember who played Coriolanus (although he was good), but all the ladies lost their hearts to Aufidius played by Pat Stewart not much hair, or clothing! I look forward to this version.

  5. Raghav

    Great review. They will be playing it in a local independent cinema soon, so I might just go check it out. Just a tad worried about the language, but let’s see what happens

    1. Hi Raghav, that’s cool that they’re showing this on the big screen. It never even made its way to the theaters near me 😦 The language does take a bit of getting used to, but after a while I actually like it.

    1. Ahahaha, well I have to be fair and not just zoomed in to my favorite 😀 He is terrific in this Vince, I do hope you’ll enjoy it. I’ll bring the BD this Friday for you.

  6. I haven’t seen that one but l’ll give it a look. It’s still called Butterfly on A Wheel over here. Can’t say I’m a big fan of Brosnan though, but I’ll still check it out.

    1. Watch it for Butler, he looks like a young Mel Gibson in it and he’s quite effective in his first role just after 300 as it’s so different from Leonidas. Brosnan is kind of lame, I think if their roles were reversed it might be a more compelling movie.

  7. Really glad to see you enjoyed it as much as I did. Some really good performances. Fiennes towers in every scene. I also love how you point out how strong Cox is here. Martius is one of the most layered and complex characters I have seen on screen this year and I loved how he’s delivered by Fiennes both through his performance and direction.

    1. Yeah I did, but I had a feeling I would as the cast is just tremendous. I think the strength of this one is the casting, they’re great all around. Butler is the perfect adversary, even Fiennes himself said in the commentary he gives him a challenge and every actor loves that. But Brian Cox is always an actor I enjoy watching, even when he’s playing despicable characters like in the Bourne movie and X-Men 2, he’s always so compelling. I wish he had been nominated for Best Supporting Actor along w/ Redgrave.

  8. FANTASTIC review! This must be the first one I read that actually encourages me to watch the film. I’ll try to do so soon, I love Vanessa Redgrave and I can’t wait to see her performance.

    1. Oooh, you are too kind Lady Sati. If you love Redgrave then you certainly won’t be disappointed, there are so many great scenes of her. Clearly Mr. Fiennes is a huge admirer of her work.

  9. I look forward to watching this one myself. Pardon me for just reading your final thoughts section on this one. I really wanted to save reading the rest of your review until after I have watched it. Hope to have time this upcoming weekend.

    I’m glad that you enjoyed it and that it was worth the purchase!

    1. Oh no, that’s ok, even though I didn’t really have any spoiler 🙂 I’m glad I waited to see it properly on Blu-ray, this film demands it and it looks good visually. Can you believe it I saw it twice already? 🙂

  10. great review ruth. I knew this movie has been released in dvd but havent searched for it yet.
    The movie has intrigued me since I saw the trailer. THe quote you shared is very powerful

  11. If Coriolanus is a passion film than I can only imagine how good it will be. Every role I’ve ever seen him in (and I look for his films) are filled with passion and characterization. He picked a fantastic cast and placed the film in present tense, which ironically works well. During my frequent business travels for Dish, I use my spare time to research movies in order to have the knowledge I need for my blog. To make sure I have the resources I need, I decided to subscribe to Blockbuster @Home. It’s easy to order a film and it’s in my mailbox when I get home. Relaxing in my hotel room to a movie such as Coriolanus brings me joy especially watching Ralph Fiennes for 2 hours. I know when I write the article for discussion, I will stimulate fascinating interaction.

  12. I’m a total sucker for Shakespeare adaptations so your review has inspired me to rent this at redbox, not to mention I love Jessica Chastain who I’ve heard is in this as well!

  13. Knowing how long you’ve been waiting, I’m glad you liked and I did too. Occasionally it gets too pragmatic, but it works well and the performances are solid. And, yup, I’m a Vanessa Redgrave obsessive. “Anger is my meat, I sup upon myself.” That woman!

  14. Pingback: 10 Actresses I would watch in just about anything |

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