When one thinks of Shakespeare, the things that never come to mind are rocket launchers, tanks, military operations, explosions, and knife fights right? Well, this is the world in which Ralph Fiennes, the director and star of Coriolanus, immerses the viewer. He takes Shakespeare’s play, which is originally set around the 5th century B.C. in ancient Rome, and transposes it to a modern day “place calling itself Rome.”
Now, this wouldn’t be the first time a director has taken liberties to change the settings of Shakespeare’s plays. Playhouses for years have done this and Baz Luhrman had great success with his rendition of Romeo+Juliet. Fiennes, making his directorial debut, takes on Coriolanus in this vein. He gives Shakespeare’s poetic hand, a fresh feel and adapts the play in a new way that makes it easier to understand and engaging for a modern audience – as well as those who may have hated life while reading Shakespeare in high school.
In the film, Fiennes portrays the flawed Roman general, Caius Martius ‘Coriolanus’. Coriolanus is a unique kind of character. He is a victorious champion and protector of Rome, who venomously despises the “rank-scented many” he serves. Ultimately, his prejudice and unwillingness to politick the masses leads to his banishment from Rome. Coriolanus’ blind drive for vengeance against his former countrymen, directs him to his sworn Volscian enemy, General Tullus Aufidius. The alliance of Coriolanus and Aufidius, played by Gerard Butler, could spell the end of Rome.
For Fiennes to choose one of Shakespeare’s lesser known tragedies as his first attempt at directing, proves that Coriolanus is more a labor of love than just homage to the Great Playwright. In the Director’s Commentary feature of the Blu-ray/DVD, Fiennes affirms his passion for the play. Having performed the title role on stage, he desired to recreate the play for theatrical release. This begs the question, “How is the movie?”
From the beginning, I found myself engaged in the story. “Rome” is shown as a place of unrest through waves of CNN-like news flashes revealing civil demonstrations and clashes between protesters and police forces. These images are all too familiar in light of the current struggles in parts of the Middle East, Europe, and even in the Occupy Movement at home. The conflict in Rome is tangible and is fanned by food shortages and an oppressing presence of martial law.
I enjoyed Fiennes’ performance of Coriolanus. From the moment he is introduced, I found myself disliking the man. Fiennes brings out the cold elitism and disconnection Coriolanus has with the world. However, as the story progresses, I found it increasingly difficult to root for the flawed hero. Generally, I prefer imperfect characters because they tend to be more interesting and have some redeeming quality. In Coriolanus’ case, he is unyielding on his destructive core beliefs to a fault.
Fiennes surrounds himself with other veteran actors to convey the story. Vanessa Redgrave gave a strong performance playing, Volumina, the mother of Coriolanus. She exuded the essence of an independent, hawkish woman fused with a soothing, manipulating caress of a charmer. Reminiscent in character to Lady MacBeth, her desire for her only son’s succession to Consulship and Rome’s glory, are all that matter to her. Volumina says, “Had I a dozen sons, I had rather eleven die nobly for their country, than one voluptuously surfeit out of action.” This provides an interesting dynamic between Coriolanus and his mother throughout the film.
Gerard Butler portrays the seething enemy leader, Aufidus, who continually loses to Coriolanus in battle. His anger towards Rome and Coriolanus is very palpable. Butler captures the core of Aufidus’ envy, frustration, and fury after his encounter and loss to his archenemy. The emotions he feels culminates in “Where I find him, were it at home, upon my brother’s guard, even there, will I wash my fierce hand in his heart.” Coriolanus describes Aufidus as a lion that he is proud to hunt. Like lions, Butler and Fiennes duel for dominance in a ritual-like knife fight, with their men standing at a distance and awaiting the outcome. I found the concept of dueling to be interesting, especially in a modern context. It is a lost custom of battle. Maybe there would be less bloodshed and violence in global affairs, if the world’s leaders actually battled in such a fashion.
The most exciting parts of the film are the battle scenes between the Roman and Volscian armies. They are reminiscent of the war-torn levels of the Modern Warfare games. The use of a steadicam gives a shaky camera feel and the perception of being present alongside the troops in the heat of the battle. This being said, I wish the suspense of the battle was drawn out a little more, especially in the hallways and the door to door building searches. Of course, I realize that the film as it stands is 124 minutes and most audience goers start fidgeting in their seats about an hour and forty minutes into a movie, but I feel the quick cuts dampened the intensity of those scenes. A minute or two more could have made a huge difference in taking it up to a Black Hawk Down or Hurt Locker type experience.
Overall, the movie entertained me and kept my interest through the end. As stated earlier, I wish the flawed, military hero had some redeeming qualities, so that I could truly feel connected to him, but this is no fault of the director. This was Shakespeare’s design. Maybe that’s what is novel about it. Who says you have to like your hero? Get your copy and you decide. Coriolanus makes its Blu-ray/DVD release on Tuesday, May 29th, 2012.