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.