Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox
A banished hero of Rome allies with a sworn enemy to take his revenge on the city.
Because our own personal histories determine how we react to new stimuli as we encounter them it’s easy for people to overlook that fact that there really is nothing new under the sun. There’s just what’s new to us at the moment because it’s happening to us for the first time. Which is why we can be so surprised when the stories and words of the past continue to have resonance and relevance today. We choose to forget that the past was probably not that different from today; be it the world of 19th century authors, of ancient Roman poets, or of Elizabethan playwrights.
Which is why it should come as no surprise that the works of Shakespeare are amazingly relevant well above and beyond the context of their day. Not just because he was amazingly far seeing in his dramatic gifts, though he certainly was, but because people were just as terrible then as they are now or indeed even were in the older myths and stories Shakespeare drew from.
The story this time around is the life of the Roman general and consul Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes), a prideful man who looked down at the world around him as unworthy and refused to budge from that viewpoint no matter the pressures placed on him. Shakespeare’s Martius is an even more over the top variation of the historical Martius, a general who cares nothing for any not willing to take up arms, a man just as likely to impose his martial will on his fellow Roman citizens as on invading barbarians if that’s what he feels is called for. And while his bullheadedness and refusal to back down serves him well in the field against his mortal enemy Aufidius (Gerard Butler) and the dreaded Volscians, it causes him nothing but trouble when he attempts to enter the world of politics and runs for Consul of Rome.Played straight, “Coriolanus” is one of Shakespeare’s drier texts, saddled as it is with a main character who could lightly be called ‘opaque.’ However, whether they set out to a prove a point about Shakespeare’s universality or not, first time director Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan (“Hugo”) decision to bring the action forward to the modern day opens up more archaic portions of the story, making it a story instantly relatable to today’s audience.
Though still set in a Roman Republic of Consuls and Tribunes and the like, the look is pure modern Europe and so is the feel of it. Marching at speed through every scene in his military camo or dress uniforms, Martius is instantly recognizable as a modern would be dictator. A lifetime military man he cannot stand the machinations of politicians, preferring to speak plainly and truly whether what he has to say works in his benefit or not. In fact he can’t really stand democracy at all, believing that he knows best and the people would be best off just doing what he says.
It’s a pressure which pops regularly during crisis, and yet it’s easy to forget that Shakespeare was writing about it hundreds of years ago. Or at least it would be if the language weren’t so cheerfully old fashioned. It’s a tough mix to put that sort of staginess in the real world environments Fiennes and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (“The Hurt Locker”) have devised, but largely at works. In particular during the extended war scenes at the beginning as Martius leads his troops to glory through a battle sequence which wouldn’t seem out of place in a modern war film. It’s also easy to forget that Shakespeare wrote for the masses as much as anyone else and new a good action beat when he saw one.
But he also knew what made for compelling drama, marrying his plots with self-destructive characters. And he didn’t come up with too many more self-destructive than Martius, who would cheerfully thrash anyone who doesn’t just do what he says. Almost more amazing than how well the modern look mashes with Shakespeare’s play is the strength of Fiennes performance, especially when considering that he is at the center of almost every scene. Martius is the kind of character who works well with Fiennes Teutonic delivery, and there are few who can keep up with him on screen. Only Vanessa Redrag as Martius willful mother manages to stay on screen in her handful of scenes with him.
Which isn’t to slight the rest of the cast, who are generally fine, also dancing the line between classic Shakespearean recitations and turning the lines to the tune of modern speech patterns. The only real weaknesses are, to an extant, Jessica Chastain as Martius wife. Chastain is a good actor but straightforward Shakespeare doesn’t suit her.
Her problems aren’t particularly noticeable however, when you realize that Martius opposite number is being played by Gerard Butler. It would be an understatement to say that Shakespeare doesn’t favor him. Every line is a grinding assault on the senses and long Butler-free periods are often the best of the film just for that reason.
That said, there is far more to like in “Coriolanus” than there is to dislike. A moving tragic depiction of a most unlikeable man, there is much of Shakespeare’s genius on display here and some of Fiennes as well.