We’re getting ready for a Shakespeare heavy week here at my blog. The 1950’s version of Othello, starring Orson Welles, came in the mail for me while I was at Bonnaroo, and yesterday, my father received the 2011, Ralph Fiennes directed version of Shakespeare’s semi-obscure (but critically beloved) play Coriolanus. With the notable exception of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (a bastardized debacle if there ever was one), the Shakespeare I’ve watched for this blog has been a success (Richard III was a great if flawed movie and Ran [King Lear with samurais] remains the second best film I’ve reviewed for the blog). Well, let the man who will be forever known either as Lord Voldermort of Schindler’s List‘s Amon Goethe now also be known as making one of the finest Shakespearean adaptations of the last ten years. Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s most morally complex and challenging plays (if for no other reason than its complete lack of any remotely sympathetic characters), and despite transplanting the setting to modern times (though in some sort of strange alternate history), the film lost none of Shakespeare’s thematic genius. And centered on Ralph Fiennes’ inspired direction and incendiary performance, Coriolanus was a marvelous film that I found far more engaging than the vast majority of films nominated for Best Picture at last year’s Academy Awards.
In modern days in a city “Calling Itself Rome,” a fascist party known as the Patricians rule Rome with an iron fist. When a group of rabble rousing plebeians (common people for those not versed in classical Roman terminology) storm the local granary to protest their own food shortages, they are brutally pushed back by the forces of brilliant military leader (but prideful and arrogant asshole) Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes). Basically telling the citizens that if they were soldiers they wouldn’t be starving, he earns the enmity of the entire Roman plebeian population. However, he becomes a hero of the Roman nation after he defeats the invading Volscian forces led by Aufidius Tullus (300‘s Gerard Butler). The Patrician led Senate wants to elect Martius the Consul of Rome (which would essentially make him Rome’s de facto leader). However, power hungry members of the senate conspire to turn the people against Martius who has made little secret of his total despisal of the lower class. Although Coriolanus is easily elected Consul by the Senate, he has to garner the popular support of the people. Although he promises his mother Volumnia (Atonement‘s Vanessa Redgrave) that he will keep his tongue civil despite his hatred of flattery and essentially democracy itself, the two scheming Senators trick Martius into exploding on the populace who send him into exile. After being exiled from Rome, the betrayed general strikes an alliance with with his previous mortal enemy, Aufidius Tullus, in a quest to wreak vengeance against the people of Rome.
First off, Ralph Fiennes gives his best performance since The Constant Gardener and honestly, more like his best performance since Schindler’s List. The only Shakespearean protagonist that I can think of who is even less likeable than Martius is probably Richard of Gloucester from Richard III. And without question, Ralph Fiennes channels all of the pride, arrogance, and class condescension that ultimately turns the people against Martius despite his military victories. Yet, Martius is a little more complex than that. He has an incredibly Oedipal-reeking relationship with his mother, and while he is entirely arrogant, he truly does not give a shit what others think about him So, while Fiennes channels all of Martius’ least endearing qualities, we also get steady glimpses of his disturbing sense of honor, his loyalty, and his unwielding conviction. Vanessa Redgrave is also excellent as the manipulative and almost Machiavellian mother (though she only manipulates her son to try and save his life though her jingoistic patriotism is what turned him into such a devoted and mentally unwell soldier to begin with). My only real problem with the cast is Gerard Butler as Aufidius. It’s not that he’s a bad actor, and he absolutely nails the homoerotic subtext that is written into Shakespeares’ play itself in regards to Aufidius’ feelings towards Martius, but his diction was atrocious. I honestly felt like I had to turn on subtitles to understand what the hell he was saying during any of his scenes (and he utters several of the more pivotal lines of the play).
You’d think that a healthy selection of action sequences wouldn’t work within the context of a Shakespearean play (Richard III‘s ending upped the action to a farcical level that nearly crippled the film), but the film version of Coriolanus uses several scenes of modern, urban warfare to both portray Martius’ valor and strength as well as the atrocities that were committed by both the Patrician party and their foreign enemies, the Voscians. Shot with a handheld camera, they were entirely riveting if not not engaging as the more cerebral and politically driven aspects of the later parts of the film. While my father (who watched the film with me since it was his movie from Netflix) often found himself lost as to the plot of the movie, he stuck around for the off-chance there’d be another action sequence. The final half of the film didn’t have many, though its gritty final moments were certainly bloody enough. One of the most defining aspects of the film for me would be the way that it combined politically motivated scheming and backstabbing with wonderfully choreographed (and engagingly shot) action sequences. Shakespeare’s words work on their own, and even though I was unfamiliar with this play before watching the film (other than having read somewhere once that it was banned in France in the 1930s), I was able to follow the story. Yet, the more lively and visceral moments helped increase the pacing of one of the most dark Shakespearean tragedies I’ve experienced yet.
I want to write more about this excellent movie but I spent several hours earlier working on a big feature article for work about Bonnaroo (you can read that here) and I’m fucking exhausted. Plus, I’ve only got one episode left of the current disc of Mad Men that I’m on which means that I’ll likely have to review that as well. Plus, there’s a new episode of True Blood from Sunday that I missed because of Bonnaroo that I want to watch and if its airing tonight, I’m going to try and watch it. Plus, I have to do my Song of the Day post. Plus, I have to get started on part 2 of that article for work about Bonnaroo. I’m going to be spending my first whole day back home writing. I don’t really have the energy for this shit but I’m going to be doing it anyways. So, if you’re a fan of Shakespeare (or Ralph Fiennes, but who isn’t?), you should give Coriolanus a go. For a Shakespearean play that I wasn’t familiar with before this film, it immediately joined the ranks of my other favorite plays (King Lear, Richard III, and Hamlet). Just go in understanding that you’re going to leave the film liking virtually none of the other people in it.
Final Score: A