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Movie Review: Shakespeare's Coriolanus

Director-star Ralph Fiennes modernizes the old Bard

Coriolanus movie scene

Courtesy Weinstein Company

(L to R, Front) Brian Cox, Ralph Fiennes, and John Kani star in <i>Coriolanus</i>.

Director: Ralph Fiennes
Rated: R, Runtime: 122 mins.
Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox.

En español  |  The main problem I have with this adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s longest plays is that it seems to have a split personality. Debut film director Ralph Fiennes, who also stars, sets the action in modern-day Rome (though the film was actually shot in Serbia and Montenegro).The movie portrays warfare with contemporary weaponry. The characters wear costumes from the 21st century (though Fiennes, on the battlefield, ends up with so much fake blood on his head that he looks like a prehistoric dragon).

Shakespeare’s dialogue (often difficult to decipher, in part due to Gerard Butler’s heavy Scottish accent) never quite meshes with this grisly urban environment. The result is confusion, despite the assistance of a contemporary chorus: Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, The Last Samurai) present some lines as CNN-type nightly newscasts encapsulating the events as they occur.

Moreover, and less the fault of the filmmakers, Coriolanus might just be Shakespeare’s least emotional piece. Warfare is the overriding theme here, and human qualities never seem to triumph.

Caius Martius Coriolanus (Fiennes, who, make no mistake, is a great actor) is an up-and-coming Roman leader, and we meet him as he’s being further decorated and empowered, surrounded by his ambitious mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), and his deferential, lovely wife, Virgilia, played by the soon-to-be-overexposed Jessica Chastain, who is very good in this. Minutes into the film, political forces undermine Coriolanus, and he is charged by an angry populace as a traitor. What does he do? He goes straight into the arms of the enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), head of the Voluscian army, and vows to join forces with him. His mother, with Virgilia in tow, visits him in Voluscian territory. The woman who has raised her son to be a warrior prostrates herself before him and calls upon him to bring forth all the emotional qualities she’s never nurtured in him. Redgrave is as powerful as she can be in this scene, playing a character Shakespeare designed as somewhat one-dimensional. Fiennes responds in an equally predictable way by sticking with his resolve. Once a warrior, always a warrior. Quieter scenes with Coriolanus and his wife are moving, but they unfortunately are delegated to minor status in the action of this film.

The role of the talented Brian Cox (of Troy and the Bourne series), who plays Coriolanus’s mentor, Menenius, is muddled in this film. That is a shame.

Coriolanus is a piece of work that possesses thought-provoking and moving themes, including loyalty to country versus family, and the qualities that make a hero a hero. I just wish that guys like Fiennes — with money and resources like Butler and Redgrave — would go the extra mile to make Shakespeare, even when adapting his more masculine works, appealing to the masses. That means diving into the emotional core of his stories, and exposing them in a way everyday people can relate to.