Saturday, January 21, 2012

Review: "Coriolanus"

Ralph Fiennes, the esteemed British actor who won Academy Award nominations for Schindler's List (1994) and The English Patient (1997), makes his directorial debut with an adaptation of William Shakespeare's Coriolanus. It is one of Shakespeare's least known and least performed tragedies, believed to be written sometime between 1605 and 1608. Fiennes is a renowned Shakespearean actor, having first performed the role of Curio in Twelfth Night in 1985. In 1995 Ralph Fiennes won a Tony Award for Best Actor for playing the title role in Hamlet on Broadway. Having said that, Fiennes' Coriolanus is a modern adaptation of the Shakespearean tragedy based on the life of Roman General Caius Marcius. The play retains its Roman setting while adapting to modern technology - such as television and machine guns. The film seems to be a reference to the Yugoslav Wars (1991-1995), which is apt considering the film was shot in Belgrade, Siberia. Coriolanus is vehicle for Ralph Fiennes as an actor and his central performance is outstanding, but the film certainly undercuts the importance of Tullus Aufidius, Caius Martius' enemy. The screenplay, by John Logan (Gladiator (2000), The Aviator (2004) and the forthcoming Bond film, Skyfall), expertly uses Shakespeare languages and infuses it with a modern twist. The film uses television media to explore the tensions between the people of Rome and Caius Martius, and between the states of Rome and Volsci. It is quite an ingenious way of linking scenes and dialogue. My chief complaint would be that Fiennes uses too many prolonged silences to create tension and the effect wears thin towards the final scene. And while Ralph Fiennes is exemplary as Caius Martius Coriolanus, it is Vanessa Redgrave (as Volumnia, mother of Caius Martius) that steals the show. Coriolanus is a brilliantly acted film from a first time director with great promise. Fiennes obviously understands the language of Shakespeare and this is apparent on screen. Coriolanus is a unique perspective on the pride of man, and a film which left me eager to know more about Shakespeare and his characters.

The film opens in Rome. There citizens are rioting because they believe grain is being withheld. The people believe this is the fault of Caius Martius (Fiennes), a Roman general who only shows ill-contempt for the people. Martius is guided by Menenius (Brian Cox), a patrician and friend to Martius' mother Volumnia (Redgrave). The Romans are at war against the Volscian army, led by Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). Martius, a deputy in the army under Cominius (John Kani), and leads his soldiers to meet Aufidius in the Volscian city of Corioles. Unsuccessful at first, Martius conquers the city of Corioles. Upon his return, Martius is awarded the cognomen of Coriolanus for his great bravery. His war wounds, now numbering twenty seven, please his mother and terrify his wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) and their young son. Volumnia encourages her son to run for Roman consul, and Martius effortlessly wins support from the Roman senate. But Sicinius (James Nesbitt) and Brutus (Paul Jesson), tribunes to Rome, rally the people of Rome against him. Martius is named a traitor and expelled from the city. Caius Martius Coriolanus seeks out Tullus Aufidius in the Volscian capital of Antium. The two great warriors - once enemies - unite to plan an attack against Rome.

Coriolanus opened at one theatre in Toronto. The film's trailer is stunning, but it is not an accurate representation of a film that stays true to Shakespeare's dialogue. Nearly a dozen people in the audience walked out of the theatre within the first thirty minutes - the first time I have witnessed that since seeing the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Was the film too violent? Was the language too difficult to understand? Or was it simply unendurable? Coriolanus is a film about one man's pride and how the pride of a powerful man can result in war. Caius Martius' attack on the city of Corioles was due to his pride. He fought Tullus Audifius barehanded because of his pride. I also quite enjoyed the modernization of the story: the media served to symbolize how modern technology influences society and how our CNN Culture makes every small even instantly noteworthy. Ralph Fiennes is a terrifically talented actor, though no performance can rival The Constant Gardener (2005), one of my absolute favourites. He is the exact opposite of Justin Quayle - a mild-mannered diplomat. And while it is hard to be sympathetic with Caius Martius, Vanessa Redgrave is essentially flawless as Volumnia, infusing every single breath with power and restraint. Coriolanus will undoubtedly factor into my favourite films of 2011, but I am eager to hear what Siobhan has to say. Siobhan, who has studied several of Shakespeare's works, will offer a much more detailed look at Coriolanus as a Shakespearean tragedy.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

1 comment:

  1. Uh oh. I've been called out...now I'll have to talk about the original source material ;)

    While I would agree with Matt's assessment of the film (it was definitely a well crafted film for a first time director) there were several changes that were made when adapting the film to the screen. For purists (of whose number you will find I am NOT counted) there were many choices as to the motivation or actions of several key characters which may have offended. While I thought that mostly these changes were well chosen, there were one or two which I feel didn't served the story to the fullest.

    The play itself (apparently one of Shakespeare's longest) is quite a bit more accessible than most in that it is written in comparably plain language. This makes the play (though long) quite quick to get through and much easier to understand at the outset. This bodes well for an adaptation to the big screen. It also bodes well for the manner in which Fiennes chose to adapt the story, setting in in war torn Yugoslavia, as the plain language coupled with a somewhat familiar settings means that even those who are not enthusiasts should be able to follow the goings on.

    Much has been made of the violence of the film but ultimately I felt it served the story well since a good deal of what makes Caius who he is was borne of war and destruction. This is most certainly a vehicle for Fiennes and he was definitely the right choice for the part. Few actors in his age range are as accomplished at the tragic Shakespearean character as Fiennes and it shows as he careens through the film, absolutely destroying everything in his path. Fiennes' Caius Martius Coriolanus is a proud and stubborn man and as with most Shakespearean leads it is this one fatal flaw which leads to his downfall.

    That said, Coriolanus as a character does not entirely conform to the tradition of the "fatal flaw" since part of what makes a classic tragedy is the idea that you feel some sort of sympathy for the plight of the lead. The hubris of the character, while contributing to their downfall, should cause the audience to feel some trepidation for their resulting lot in life. I found that this was the most difficult part of the story to swallow and it is owed--at least in part--to the differences between how we feel about violence today as compared to how Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have felt. We do not celebrate war and so the idea that this man has spent his whole life as a soldier does not garner the same type of sympathy as was intended. This makes Caius' downfall less significant and hurts the film as a whole, though not as much as one would expect.

    Small changes to certain scenes (such as swapping out Brian Cox' Menenius in an early scene with Caius' wife and mother) make Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) more politically significant to the story than was originally the case. This--I think--is a positive change, though I'm sure some would disagree. We also find, upon examining the play, that the part of Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) has been significantly reduced. Having not had the time to study the play in earnest I would simply say that I'm not sure this is to the benefit of the film. While it gives Fiennes more space to shine, it also means that when Caius betrays Rome after his exile and joins forces with Aufidius the drama is waylayed by the fact that Aufidius didn't really seem a worthy foe to begin with. There is never any question that Coriolanus will, in the end, come out on top. Though I suppose that this is all a matter of opinion.

    Ultimately the film was well made, well acted and thoroughly enjoyable but be prepared for some Shakespearean flourishes.

    Lines of note:

    My new favourite insult for 2012 will most definitely have to be, "You souls of geese, That bear the shapes of men!"

    Look out for Redgrave's spectacular outburst following her son's exile, "Anger's my meat; I sup upon myself, And so shall starve with feeding!"

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