Upfront I can say that Coriolanus is definitely not a film for everyone, given that it transplants one of William Shakespeare’s lesser known tragedies to modern times while retaining the Bard’s verse. This isn’t the first time that Shakespeare has made the leap to present day, language intact (Romeo + Juliet is a smash hit example), but it’s a bold choice that can alienate a lot of viewers.
For the most part though, Coriolanus does get it right. Well, at least during the film’s first two-thirds. During this period the experiment pays off and the audience finds themselves engrossed in what can probably be best described as Bard Hawk Down.
So, as the film opens, we meet brilliant, battle-hardened military commander Coriolanus – star and first time director Ralph Fiennes – who is a faithful servant of Rome, but has earned the hatred of the public after he’s responsible for suppressing unrest during a grain shortage. However, Coriolanus is soon viewed as a hero again after a successful military operation against neighbouring Volsci – and arch-nemesis Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler).
Suddenly Coriolanus is in the running to be Consul, much to the delight of his ambitious mother (Vanessa Redgrave). But Coriolanus is a fiercely proud man, disdainful of the fickle masses and unwilling to woo them for their vote. It doesn’t take much for a pair of insecure politicians to turn the crowd against Coriolanus once more and, enraged, he unites with Aufidius to overthrow Rome.
As already mentioned, Coriolanus the film is brilliant to begin with. And it’s surprisingly topical, with protests by the 99%, urban warfare and manipulative TV news coverage (complete with scrolling titles). If it wasn’t for the dialogue it would be easy to forget that you’re watching something based on a 17th Century play, itself inspired by Ancient Roman history/legend.
As for the film’s combat scenes, they’re in the Hurt Locker shaky cam style, but also fit unexpectedly well with the Shakespearean source material. Who knew that “Make you a sword of me!” would be such a convincing rallying cry for camo-wearing, M4-wielding soldiers? It works.
Unfortunately though, after a strong beginning, all energy seeps out of Coriolanus. There’s a reason that the exciting trailer samples scenes almost entirely from the first half of the film. What follows in the last 30 minutes is a grand stalemate, with characters standing around talking. And that’s pretty much the rest of the movie – people on their knees, pleading with Coriolanus not to destroy Rome.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that when it comes to deciphering Shakespearean dialogue as a contemporary cinemagoer, it’s considerably easier when the lines are paired with movement and action. When characters prattle on while stationary it’s much harder to determine meaning. The result is that the latter scenes of Coriolanus are both brain-straining and boring.
This isn’t the fault of the actors however. Performances in Coriolanus are universally excellent. With a topnotch supporting cast that includes Brian Cox, John Kani and Jessica Chastain, there’s not a weak deliverer of Shakespearean dialogue among them.
You’d expect great work from the classically trained Redgrave, Cox and Fiennes – whose Coriolanus is quite terrifying actually, always teetering on the edge of violent explosion. Gerard Butler, however, is the big surprise of the film, demonstrating a dramatic range and restraint you wouldn’t expect given his typically intense portrayals in Hollywood blockbusters. Rapidly rising star Chastain meanwhile is fine, but is given little to do in a small role. Clearly the most important woman in Coriolanus’s life is his mother.
Even with such talent onscreen, it’s still not enough to keep the film energised. As politicking and negotiations replace warfare as the movie’s main content, Coriolanus begins its slide towards a disappointingly flat ending. The play isn’t ranked amongst Shakespeare’s greatest, and as the credits roll on this film adaptation there’s a strong sense of unaffecting nothingness.
Last Updated: July 9, 2012