If you want to frighten teenagers, then screw slasher movies: William Shakespeare is the way to go. I distinctly remember, and I can’t imagine that it’s too different now, all my English teachers in high school handing out copies of Julius Caesar or Othello, and being met with thousand-yard stares as she dropped each of them my classmates’ desks. (I was cool with it, but I was a theater geek, and probably don’t count.) So this was that “Shakespeare” guy they all were dreading. The man who famously wrote, “Now is the winter of our discontent” when a simple “Good times” would have sufficed. But for every frustrated youth who finds the Bard’s iambic pentameter impenetrable, there have always been those who looked within the poetry and saw, clear as day, the populist blockbusters Shakespeare really wrote. Tales of sex, violence and war that still resonate and entertain to this day.
Ralph Fiennes is clearly one of those people. He’s taken one of Shakespeare’s more obscure plays, Coriolanus, and directed the living hell out of it, finding within the ancient Roman’s life a fitting and genuinely exciting story about the power of political double-speak to manipulate and cajole, diminishing the abilities of individuals and the masses to speak for themselves, and act in their own interests. Like most of Shakespeare’s work, the characters in Coriolanus boast with more complexity than almost any “original” film we’ve seen in years. Ralph Fiennes moved the action from Ancient Rome to the present day, losing none of the powerful context, and adding, in a thematically fitting attempt to appeal to the masses, a number of Modern Warfare action sequences that keep his adaptation punchy.
Fiennes stars as Caius Martius, a Roman general who rules the battlefield but is too outspoken, and too bigoted towards the common man to feel comfortable in the country he protects. After a great victory over his sworn enemy Tullus Aufidius, played by Gerard Butler, in the city of Corioles, he returns home to accolades and a new moniker, “Coriolanus.” His dedication to Rome proven, Coriolanus is swiftly coerced into politics, but his attempts to win over the people are undermined by senators who now sow discord against him, leading to a fateful televised interview in which Coriolanus rails against democracy, since the populace clearly doesn’t deserve leaders who won’t pander to them. Although the senate attempts to banish him from Rome, Coriolanus instead banishes the Romans from his sight, departing on his own and joining forces with Aufidius to lay waste to the city that no longer deserves his loyalty.
Coriolanus suffers the pitfalls that most Shakespeare adaptations do when they’re adapted to a modern setting. Although Fiennes, working from an adaptation by The Aviator’s John Logan, cleverly gives all the expository dialogue to cable news shows, there remain the occasional distractions, including antiquated references to archaic weaponry, and protests outside grain silos when, today, supermarkets would probably have been the way to go.
But these are momentary distractions from a film otherwise well suited to present day concerns. The fickleness of the masses when confronted with pretty words runs neatly parallel to every political rally you’ve ever seen, and the backstage manipulations also manage to ring true. Coriolanus, bigot that he is, will be repeatedly swayed by the very rhetoric he rails against, personified by his mother, played by a truly magnificent Vanessa Redgrave, who knows just what buttons to push to convince her son to do what’s best for Rome, whether or not he actually agrees. His downfall is his own making, because he ultimately falls prey to the same fickle words that made him wage war on his own country in the first place. The ending is tragic, but not because he’s a martyr to a cause. The tragedy lies with the inability of hardly any character in Coriolanus to stand by their principles, resulting in a world where actions are make no sound compared to words, words, words.
Splendidly acted across the board, although Butler seems to growl his way through much of his dialogue, and shot with both intensity and reason, Coriolanus is a hypnotic motion picture that deserves the fine Blu-ray treatment it has received from Anchor Bay. The picture quality is strong, the surround sound mix does an excellent job and the two special features – a short “Making of” and a commentary track from Fiennes himself – are informative and worth watching. Fiennes spends much of his time on the commentary track describing the action, which might normally be a minus, but the complexity of the language and the depth of the narrative deserve further clarification.
Coriolanus marks a stunning directorial debut from an actor too often relegated to cartoonish villain roles nowadays. It serves as a strong reminder that Fiennes is a rich performer, and a budding talent behind the camera as well. And most importantly, it should shut up the whining voices of Philistines who openly wonder why Shakespeare still matters.