Review: Coriolanus


[This was originally posted as part of our coverage of the London Film Festival 2011. It has been reposted to coincide with the film’s US release.]

You have to credit Ralph Fiennes for bravery. Shakespeare has rarely made an easy transition from stage to screen, so for Fiennes to choose his work as the subject of his directorial debut shows his willingness to take risks. For the play in question to be Coriolanus, a tragedy probably best known for its snigger-inducing final two syllables, demonstrates ambition bordering on the recklessness.

The question of who the film’s intended audience is supposed to be never gets properly answered. For Shakespeare devotees, the modernised setting will surely come across as a tasteless bid for populism. To the mainstream crowd and younger audience members, who may be attracted by a Call Of Duty wartime aesthetic, the language barrier and obscure nature of the source material may well prove stumbling blocks.

Of course, it’s not up to me to judge who the film is supposed to be for. If it finds an audience, then it’s thumbs up, Mr. Fiennes, for taking bold choices that paid off. The problem is that the demands of the two possible audiences for Coriolanus seem to be at war with one another, making the film a dissatisfyingly disjointed affair.

First, there’s the language. The rhythm and timing of Shakespeare’s verse are second to none, but don’t translate so well into a modern setting. It is simply too outlandish for all those ‘thous’ and ‘thees’ to be sitting alongside assault rifle-wielding infantry storming a ruining city, with explosions going off all around them. I wonder if it is blasphemous of me to admit that I spent much of time watching the film thinking about how easy it would be to translate the 17th Century verse into a more palatable form for modern viewers: changing the ‘thous’ for ‘you’ and realigning some of the more fruity bits of sentence construction.

I’m a confessed Shakespeare aficionado, but if a director is willing to make such drastic changes to the setting, making a few snips to the form of the language, keeping the same meaning and as many of the words as possible but reorganising them into a more friendly shape, is surely not out of the question? Unless going high camp, like Baz Luhrmann’s enjoyable ’90s take on Romeo & Juliet, trying to marry classical Shakespearian language to a straight-faced modern environment is too obviously anachronistic to make a happy coupling. There’s also the fact that this is a play with a noticeable dearth of memorable lines, no matter how much gusto Fiennes puts into his delivery.

That said, I’m not convinced by how well Coriolanus generally suits a modern environment anyway. There are certainly some prescient themes, yet another reminder of how Shakespeare is the quintessential timeless author, but they sit within a political environment that is baffling at the best of times. Fiennes does his best, intelligently drawing out the play’s parallels to how modern politicians are expected to play the PR game as well as being effective leaders, and are prime for the slaughter if not ready to kiss babies and pretend to have something in common with the great unwashed, no matter how magnificent their other achievements. He must also have enjoyed just a glimmer of a smile at the recent international protests, echoed in the film’s opening.

Yet his faithfulness to the word of the text means that he is still bound to set the central conflict between the Romans and the Volscians, rather than in the Balkans conflict that he obviously draws inspiration from for his battle scenes. (If you’re wondering, the Volscians were an ancient people of Italy who maintained a hostile sovereign state near Rome). A key dramatic point also revolves around Coriolanus’ bid to run for consul. As bloody and war-torn as Fiennes and his cinematographer create the street warfare scenes and as cleverly drawn as many of the modern parallels are, they immediately feel like they don’t belong in a world which runs on such very different rules from ours. Given how many popular films are set in the time of the ancient Romans, the overriding feeling is that the updated elements are too negligible to be worth the trouble they cause.

Even though naturalistic readings of Shakespearian dialogue continues to prove a challenge for even the most gifted of screen thesps, the cast are at least for the most part very strong. Fiennes, taking the lead role in addition to directing, brings out the sympathetic elements often overlooked from the afflicted Coriolanus, a man who refuses to compromise his principles (misguided though they are) and suffers an ignominious downfall for it. As his opposite number in the Volscian camp, Aufidius, Gerard Butler does his Leonidas schtick again, which is one-note but works well enough, despite the anachronistic accent. James Nesbitt and Brian Cox are enjoyable sleazy as rival PR men, and Jessica Chastain – who I assume is legally mandated to now appear in ever movie released since Tree Of Life – draws some sorrow from a very limited role, even by the standards of Shakespeare’s women.

Less successful are Vanessa Redgrave, who over-emotes to the point of ridiculousness (she laughs and claps at one naff joke as though it is the funniest thing she has ever heard) as Coriolanus’ overbearing mother, and Lubna Azabal as Tamora, the embodiment of the vox populi, whose delivery sits somewhere uncomfortable between Shakespearian overemphasis and naturalistic vigour. The casting of a popular British newsreader, Jon Snow, to recite televised verse was also a poor decision for audiences on this side of the pond at least, who burst into laughter at his every appearance.

Like its protagonist, Coriolanus falls down on its inability to temper its principles and embrace everything that needs to be done to achieve its ambitions. As a modern adaptation of a 17th century play, its devotion to the word of the original work make it feel neither one thing nor the other. It finds insightful similarities to the modern world, but cannot unpick them from the politics of an age long forgotten. As the man himself says: “This double worship, where one part does disdain with cause, the other insult without all reason, where gentry, title, wisdom, cannot conclude but by the yea and no of general ignorance,it must omit real necessities and give way the while to unstable slightness: purpose so barr’d, it follows.”