John Logan (Play: William Shakespeare)
Gerard Butler, Ralph Fiennes, Brian Cox, John Kani, Dragan Micanovic, Jessica Chastain, Vanessa Redgrave, Paul Jesson, James Nesbitt
R for some bloody violence
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Is it any wonder that Coriolanus remains one of the least known plays the Bard wrote? Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut does little to persuade those unfamiliar with the material to wonder why it remains limitedly popular.
Like the 1995 film version of Richard III, Fiennes takes Coriolanus out of its historical setting, that of the Roman Empire shortly after the expulsion of the Tarquin kings, the last line of hereditary rules of Rome, at least bearing the nominal title king. Gaius Marcius Coriolanus (Fiennes), a figure whose historical legitimacy is currently in doubt, is portrayed here as a Roman-loyal general whose valor on the battlefield is celebrated and his notoriety leads him towards a high ranking appointment in Roman leadership. The Senate does not particularly care for his leadership style and begins a campaign of disinformation and fear mongering that cause Coriolanus’ personal remarks opposing the idiocy of the Roman people to be used as a sword to bring down his reign, sending him into exile where his former opponent, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), to become his ally.
Fiennes’ fiery performance fits what I would expect from an overzealous Shakespearean actor, yet his character is unlikable, unrelatable and his ultimate death (it’s Shakespeare, you know it’s coming) is unemotional. Not playing up sentimentality is an admirable trait, but when the entire film lacks a sense of emotional attachment, any lack of resonance creates a vaccuum for the audience. Butler, on the other hand paints a vivid portrait of a courageous rebel. His lack of interest in the grace and success of Coriolanus when he comes crawling into his war room is well played. I almost wonder how Butler has managed to deliver so many shamefully bad performances when he’s obviously capable of great things.
There are two powerhouses here who easily outshine their co-stars. The first is Brian Cox whose Menenius may have some over-the-top moments, but as the faithful and unswerving advisor to Coriolanus, his performance seems perfectly fit to the role. You can see the schemes and machinations running through his head and being dashed along the pavement as Coriolanus seems incapable of living up to Menenius’ lofty expectations.
Yet, even Cox can’t compare to the luminous Vanessa Redgrave. As Coriolanus’ controlling and manipulative mother Volumnia, Redgrave perfectly captures every single scene she’s in, portraying, a quietly desperate, but convicted matriarch bent on her son’s rise to fame and power like others in their vaunted family’s history. She’s a proud mother, but one who doesn’t easily take slight at her son’s successes and failures. In her most important scene, her final one, she pleads with her headstrong son to return to Rome and reclaim his rightful position at the head of the state. She doesn’t resort to exaggerated theatrics, which makes the ferocity of her performance all the more powerful.
As a director, Fiennes does a satisfactory job drawing the audience into the film, though the out-of-period dialogue is entirely distracting for the first quarter of the film. Once you get into the meat of it, it becomes less noticeable, much like the aforementioned Richard III. Yet, the key difference here is that Richard III had a mesmerizing lead performance by Ian McKellen to keep the audience enthralled by his twisting narrative. Here, while Fiennes does fine directing himself, another director might have been able to rein in his overindulgences and make him a more humane figure. Not that McKellen’s Richard III was very humane, but there are points in that film where you root for his success even when his actions are vicious.
Fiennes never allows himself to infuse the character with a personality that helps the audience adore him regardless of his actions. It’s a role that might have been done better by another actor, but the ultimate limitations of the work itself are unlikely to have created an adequate environment for such development, which only serves to showcase once again why few are familiar with Shakespeare’s tragic play.
April 27, 2012