Ralph Fiennes has fashioned an easily accessible take on the play (yes, it’s in Shakespearian, but don’t worry about it) that, with just a slight squint of the eyes and mind, fits perfectly into today’s world.
Messing around with Shakespeare on film sometimes works. When 1995’s “Richard III” took on a British setting in the 1930s, there was some wondrous anachronism on display (Ian McKellen offering “My kingdom for a horse!” when his car was stuck in sand). But sometimes it comes off as just a gimmick, as did the hip modern couple of DiCaprio and Danes in “Romeo + Juliet” the following year.
Ralph Fiennes both stars in and makes his directorial debut with “Coriolanus,” one of Shakespeare’s lesser known political plays. Working with “Gladiator” and “Hugo” screenwriter John Logan, Fiennes has fashioned an easily accessible take on the play (yes, it’s in Shakespearian, but don’t worry about it) that, with just a slight squint of the eyes and mind, fits perfectly into today’s world.
It’s set in contemporary Rome, where there are food shortages and, due to public unrest, a suspension of civil liberties. Riots in streets lead to beatings by cops. There’s also a threat of an ancient border dispute erupting.
Local soldier/hero Martius (Fiennes) doesn’t really like the masses, but he absolutely despises the leader of that border problem, Aufidius (Gerard Butler). “Aufidius is a lion that I’m proud to hunt,” he says to senators and military men.
The hunt happens, and the two men go at it, one-on-one, in a wordless, blatantly homoerotic ballet of a fight scene. But there’s no closure in this battle, as the story must get around to Martius being crowned General Coriolanus, to his dislike of his people intensifying, to his really weird relationship with his manipulative mom (Vanessa Redgrave) and his oh-so-quiet wife (Jessica Chastain), and to his eventual banishment from Rome due to a negative political campaign by his foes (this sure is sounding more and more contemporary).
Truth be told, it’s at first a little weird to see a panel of pundits on a TV screen discussing all of this in Shakespearian, but it’s quite easy to accept as normal within Rome’s Senate chamber.
Both Fiennes and Butler give big, blustery performances, and Fiennes takes it a step further when he bares his character’s tortured side.
An interesting plot turn has Coriolanus siding up with Aufidius against the Romans. But, come on, this is Shakespeare! Do you really believe old enemies can become friends? There’s plenty of time to think about that at the end, when this violent, very noisy film drifts off into uncomfortable silence.
CORIOLANUS (R for some bloody violence) Cast includes, Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain. 3 stars out of 4.