Director : Ralph Fiennes
Screenplay : John Logan (based on the play by William Shakespeare)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Ralph Fiennes (Caius Martius Coriolanus), Gerard Butler (Tullus Aufidius), Vanessa Redgrave (Volumnia), Brian Cox (Menenius), Jessica Chastain (Virgilia), James Nesbitt (Tribune Sicinius), Paul Jesson (Tribune Brutus), Lubna Azabal (First Citizen, Tamora), Ashraf Barhom (Second Citizen, Cassius), Dragan Micanovic (Titus Lartius), Nikki Amuka-Bird (TV Pundit), Slavko Stimac (Volsce Lieutenant)
Not since the release of Roman Polanski’s angry, blood-drenched adaptation of Macbeth (1971) in the wake of the Manson murders, Altamont, and Vietnam has a cinematic adaptation of a Shakespearean tragedy felt so timely as Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus. The play, which is more than 400 years old, has long been seen as a flexible allegory for political unrest, so it seems almost uncanny that Fiennes’s film, the first time the play has been made into a theatrical feature (although it has been tackled on stage by everyone from Bertold Brecht to Laurence Olivier), arrives the same year as the international Occupy Movement and the toppling of long-standing dictatorships throughout the Middle East. Fiennes’s decision to set the film in modern times and shoot it in Serbia only enhances the resonance.
For those not familiar, the title of the play derives from an honor bestowed on the Roman general Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes), who is victorious against the enemy Volscian forces led by Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), his sworn arch-enemy. For his military brilliance Caius Martius is encouraged to run for political office by Menenius (Brian Cox), a popular politician who fails to recognize that what makes Caius Martius so prolific on the battlefield makes him particularly ill-suited in the world of politics, where words can matter as much action. It doesn’t help that Caius Martius is a bitter, egocentric misanthrope who openly holds the Roman populace in contempt, which makes him a particularly apt symbol for the derision felt by so many toward the so-called 1% (an early scene in which Roman citizens riot against the patricians’ stockpiling of grain and withholding it from the poor feels almost frighteningly of-the-moment).
Like Macbeth, Caius Martius’s ambitions are driven behind the scenes by a domineering female figurehead, in this case his mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave). His wife, Virgilia (Jessica Chastain), is a more chaste, secondary figure, constantly standing in the shadow of Volumnia’s fearsome matriarchal manipulation. Yet, that is all we really know about Caius Martius and what makes him tick; unlike the majority of Shakespeare’s tragic antiheroes, he gives us little insight into his interior world and has no soliloquies to convey personal doubts and concerns. Caius Martius is something of a monster, and Fiennes tears into him with vicious aplomb, particularly when push comes to shove and he unleashes a tirade against the Roman people that is so fiery it gets him banished from the country. At this point, he disappears into exile, emerging months later in the Volscian capital to offer his services to Tullus Aufidius in conquering Rome out of sheer spite.
While screenwriter John Logan (Rango) maintains Shakespeare’s language, he finds consistently inventive ways to make the material work in the modern vernacular, particularly by staging political discussions as TV commentary and news panel debates. In his directorial debut, Fiennes was wise to choose cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker, United 93), who was undoubtedly instrumental in achieving the film’s jittery, handheld aesthetic, which works marvelously in both the gritty gun battle that takes place in the streets of a shattered urban landscape and the fiery political wrangling that takes place in back rooms and meeting halls. Much of it looks like video footage you might catch on CNN, yet it has a larger aesthetic and thematic unity that brings together the violence of words and the violence of actions. If Caius Martis isn’t a particularly sympathetic protagonist, he is a profoundly fascinating one, and Fiennes holds the screen as both actor and director, illustrating once again that the Bard’s most powerful works resonate today as they did hundreds of years ago because they cut directly to the unchanging complexities of our all-too-human flaws.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © The Weinstein Company