January 20, 2012
Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Ralph Fiennes, director
John Logan, adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy
Starring: Ralph Fiennes (Coriolanus), Vanessa Redgrave (Volumnia), Gerard Butler (Tulius Aufidius), Brian Cox (Menenius), Jessica Chastain (Virgilia), James Nesbitt (Sincinius), Paul Jesson (Brutus)
Shakespeare’s “classic” tragedy, where the protagonist simply acts rather than meditates over his decisions, Coriolanus at last receives a major film treatment. The directorial debut for Ralph Fiennes, who played the controversial Roman general on stage over ten years ago, this film had already received considerable attention at TIFF and in Britain.
Not only does Fiennes star as Coriolanus, he’s put together an outstanding cast including Vanessa Redgrave as his mother Volumnia, hunky leading man Gerard Butler as his opponent—and, for a time, ally, Tulius Aufidius, Brian Cox as his mentor Menenius and 2011’s “it girl” Jessica Chastain as his wife, Virgilia.
More buzz was generated by Fiennes’ decision to update the play, setting it in modern times with CNN-style coverage of bloody battles and lots of action scenes. Shooting the film in Serbia, this Coriolanus can easily be read as a commentary on the Balkans wars that scarred Europe in the ‘90s as Yugoslavia broke apart.
Shakespearean Tragedy; war film; political thriller; family drama
In a war between the Romans and their neighbours the Volscians, Caius Martius, an arrogant but brilliant General, conquers the city of Corioles while his sworn enemy Aufidius battles Cominius. Martius swiftly takes his soldiers to Cominius’ side, throwing the Volscians into confusion and retreat.
Acclaimed as a hero, Martius, renamed Coriolanus by Cominius, is urged by his mother Volumnia to run for Consul. Reluctantly, Coriolanus does so and is quickly proclaimed leader of Rome by the Senate and the general populace. But when scheming Senators Brutus and Sincinius insist that Coriolanus make a more direct proclamation of his love of the common people, the patrician leader refuses in a fury.
Denounced by the populace and the Senate, Coriolanus is exiled from Rome. He goes to the Volscian capital city of Antium, where he begs Aufidius to kill him. Despite the deep suspicions of his own troops, Aufidius accepts Coriolanus as a brother and they join forces to attack Rome.
The duo is on the verge of conquering Rome when Volumnia’s pleas to Coriolanus save the city but condemn her son to death for betraying the Volsicans.
Personal aside: at a TIFF press and industry screening of Coriolanus, I sat directly behind Geoffrey Rush. When the film ended, I asked him what he thought of the performances. He said, without hesitation, “Superb.” Who am I to disagree?
I never saw Olivier’s performances of Coriolanus but can only imagine that he played him like Fiennes: imperious, emphatic, brave—a man of action and integrity. Fiennes has given us a Coriolanus that we can relish for decades on screen. And Redgrave more than matches him.
The modernizing of the play works quite well apart from the CNN TV news items, which are as jarring as, well, CNN itself. Frankly, the “Balkans” interpretation is no stranger than Stratford having Seana McKenna play the lead in Richard the Third last year. The play’s the thing and in both cases, the essential drama has been respected.
Cole Porter wrote in “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,”: “If she says your behavior is heinous,/Kick her right in the Coriolanus.”
Better watch out—the same fate might befall anyone who doesn’t agree with this reviewer when he proclaims that this film is a must-see, assuming you like Shakespeare.