Let me start by confessing that I was a Theater and English major and have spent much of my academic career studying the works of the bard. William Shakespeare‘s plays were written as entertainment for the everyman and perhaps it does say quite a bit for the dumbing down of human civilization that work once enjoyed by the average Elizabethan “Joe” is now considered incomprehensible – but that doesn’t mean they are incomprehensible. Shakespeare’s been ruined for too many people who sat through interminable high school classes listening to their peers try to read it out loud.
Director and star Ralph Fiennes has made his Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, very accessible and very relevant. Maybe because I live in the land of Occupy Wall street, but scenes of heavily armed police ready to bash citizen protesters are chilling for me. There’s nothing really foreign about the language of the film (lifted straight from the stage play); it is still English for goodness sakes. Sometimes, it is a good thing for people to stretch their brains and challenge their minds. Yet, even so, the poetry of the film is used in a very natural way, making it very accessible to an audience not familiar with it. The story is hardly tough to follow, and the updating of the setting is not only effective, but really makes knowledge of Roman history unnecessary. The rise and fall of a stubborn, powerful man who seeks revenge against those who betrayed him hardly requires a history lesson to be understood.
Venal politicians are a staple of our modern lives. The senators who aid in the downfall of Coriolanus could walk right out of the U.S. Senate today, which just last week passed a defense bill allowing the military to use indefinite detention of all terror suspects, including U.S. citizens. It seems to me that Americans can recognize self-serving politicians pretty easily. And Coriolanus (Fiennes), the military man who can’t relate to the people, the man bred to fight who can’t cope with peace, surely is a character that U.S. audiences who have been living with a decade of war should be able to grasp.
This film is a must-see because it not only reshapes and revives one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, but because it shows how timeless his work is. It boasts stellar performances by Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, Gerard Butler, and Brian Cox, and the entire cast do a fine job under Fiennes’ direction. Coriolanus marks his first time behind the camera, and Fiennes succeeds in creating a truly memorable film. Filming in Serbia, the scene of so much bloody conflict, is an inspired setting for a tough, bloody story. The stark and battered landscape and the utilitarian buildings all evoke a militarized nation where the people are restless and looking for someone to take their anger out on.
Fiennes also rounded out his crew with some notable and talented members to up the accomplishment of the film. If upon seeing Coriolanus, you think of The Hurt Locker, it’s because cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (who brought so much gritty immediacy to that film) worked with Fiennes on Coriolanus. There’s the hand-held camera, adding to the in-the-moment feel that serves the updated setting well. John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator) adapted Shakespeare’s play, paring it down to a very effective and lean two hours.
Fiennes is a great actor and his directorial debut makes me want to see what he does next as a director. What might be a surprise to audiences who know Butler from action films and rom-coms is his ability to go toe-to-toe with Fiennes. Their scenes together are electric, filled with energy. Fiennes makes a spectacular directorial debut worthy of his own prodigious talent as an actor, and it’s clear he wasn’t going to mess around and give one of the most important roles in his film to an actor he didn’t think could match him. Butler is talented, but he needs the right director to really bring it out. The role of Aufidius is perfect for him, and he inhabits it. The relationship between Coriolanus and Aufidius is complex, to say the least, a love/hate affair between two sworn enemies. Butler is tasked with conveying the respect that comes more from the side of Aufidius (who sees Coriolanus as a potential comrade in arms, if only they weren’t on different sides), and Butler more than pulls it off.
But what’s most impressive about the film is that it isn’t a vanity production. Fiennes’ respect for his cast is so evident in the way he really lets them fly. Vanessa Redgrave already picked up a best actor at the British Indie film awards. No surprise, as she’s downright fierce as Volumina, the mother of the fallen Coriolanus. If I had my way, Coriolanus would pick up a truckload of similar awards.
I well understand we live in the age of the short attention span, but this is a piece of work that might just open eyes and expand minds. It might even introduce audience to some of the most extraordinary works of art created in the history of humankind. Shakespeare, not just for scholars, but as intended, for the masses.
The Upside: Frankly, everything. I’ve seen plenty of film adaptations of Shakespeare and this is one of the best. A modernization that packs an emotional punch, relates to the times we live in and is just plain great entertainment. And no way should you miss the opportunity to see Ralph Fiennes and company show how Shakespeare can be at its best.
The Downside: Frankly, I can’t honestly think of anything. I’m sure there are flaws somewhere in the film, but I was too absorbed to find them.
On the Side: It was a fight for Fiennes to get funding for Coriolanus. In the world of film Coriolanus was made for less than the amount usually paid to one movie star, around just eight million dollars.