Directed by Ralph Fiennes; produced by Ralph Fiennes, John Logan, Gabrielle Tana, Julia Taylor-Stanley, Colin Vaines
The Roman Republic is in the midst of a crisis: bread riots result in a suspension of civil liberties, a war is brewing with the neighbouring Volscians, and an election threatens to undermine the constitution. The divisive general Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes) is propelled into the volatile situation, and finds himself beset by enemies.
One of Shakespeare’s lesser known tragedies, Coriolanus receives an excellent adaptation here, largely inspired by Fiennes. It is set in modern times, Rome a twenty-first century nation with motor-cars, automatic firearms and cellular telephones. The dialogue remains the Bard’s, though a portion (Fiennes estimated about twenty per cent) has been removed; the anachronism between the setting and the text has led to some criticism. But if the words were updated, then it would merely be a version of the story, and not Shakespeare’s. I have seen several film adaptations of the plays set in times other than the author’s – Much Ado About Nothing (1993) was placed in what appeared to have been the nineteenth century (less rude and raucous than the sixteenth) and Richard III (1995) was in a fictional 1930s Fascist England – and am leery of such contrivances. But in Coriolanus, as in the other two examples, it works.
The acting is first-rate, especially by Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave as his character’s mother. The latter portrays a woman with guts and ambition, the latter tragically misplaced. Her performance demonstrates that she has yet to descend from the top of her form. Brian Cox gives support that seems as natural in sixteenth century English as it would in everyday conversation. Gerard Butler, as Aufidius, Martius’s hated rival, is not, perhaps, in the same league as these three, but then his role is less demanding. Jessica Chastain’s part as Martius’s wife is a thankless one and, though a good actress, she is not really given much to do. But it is Fiennes that drives the movie.
The character of Caius Martius (given the title name by Rome in gratitude for a military victory) is a deceptively complex one. On the surface, he is completely unsympathetic and unlikeable. Cold, aloof, disdainful, awkward with others, out of touch with his family, and comfortable – if the word may be used – only in combat. Being a tragedy, the story is formed by his flaws, and at first glance, one may easily point to his principal problem being pride. But in this version at least, I can’t believe it to be the case. Here, it appears that Martius is troubled by his naïveté and innocence. It seems hard to credit the ruthless and at times brutal general with these qualities. But he comes across as the only character of note who is not out for something.
Martius knows war and is good at it. Thrust into the less honourable arena of politics, he is attacked by career politicians (Paul Jesson, James Nesbitt) who view him as a potential rival; scorned by the people for his haughtiness, and used even by his mother. If Martius deserts Rome, it is not due to disloyalty, but to Rome’s desertion of him, and if he is contemptuous of the common people, the latter in this movie deserve it, being little more than weather-vanes, turned this way and that by the breath of the last speech they have heard.
Hard used by almost everyone, Martius is nonetheless charismatic, gaining a devoted following among both his own and the foes’ soldiers. And even his single-minded violence in battle may hide a diffidence: he speaks of his blood-streaked countenance as a 'mask', and his absence during a recitation of his valorous deeds might be taken for affectation, yet it is clear that he finds talk of his actions disturbing. He may be one of Shakespeare’s more misleading ‘villains’.
I did find aspects of the movie off-putting. The direction by and large is very good, first-time director Fiennes using close-ups and wide-shots well, and letting faces take the place of dialogue in a way a stage, often almost out of sight to theatre-audiences, cannot. But different accents were included among the speech – Irish, South African, Serbian – and this was more jarring than any modern appliance paired with Shakespearean dialogue. It may have been done to aid just that modern effect the setting created, or to show the cosmopolitan character of Rome (this reason would be ironic, as Rome of Martius’s time was yet a small city-state). As well, some of the words are incomprehensible due to tone and accent. This may be due to Fiennes’s use of subtlety, a problem not to be encountered in the equally laudable Henry V (1989), directed by the more overt Kenneth Branagh.
I liked Coriolanus when I saw it, and the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. It is not a movie for everyone. For Shakespeare fans, it is essential, and for those who enjoy films with character, acting and good direction, it is highly recommended.