Teenagers suffering through high school English classes might owe Ralph Fiennes a debt of gratitude. In his directorial debut, Coriolanus takes William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy and adds assault rifles, tanks, and modern urban warfare. And, crazy as it is…it kind of works.
John Logan, known for several screenplays including Hugo, Rango, The Aviator, Gladiator, and Any Given Sunday, adapted Shakespeare’s work into a script that Fiennes, who also stars in the movie, chose to take on as director for the first time ever.
At face value, Coriolanus is nothing more than the modernization of the classic play, but it’s the little nuances that are easily overlooked that really help bring the film together. Fiennes and Logan truly thought of everything. They made the logical jump that, in modern day Rome, Romans would travel via modern transportation. So, instead of horses and carriages you of course have Beamers and Mercedes. But they didn’t just stop there. They also created a fictitious cable news network that the people of Rome watch meticulously at any given time. Even the politicians come off as seedy and deceitful in a modern albeit stereotypical way.
But Fiennes, in front of the camera, brings perhaps even more to the table. Playing Caius Martius Coriolanus, the stubborn Roman general that despises the commoners and doesn’t mesh with the suave aristocracy, Fiennes truly comes across as a man both loved and hated by just about everyone in the world. And, whether or not it was intentional, portraying the general as completely hairless actually only accentuates the subtle facial expressions that seem to say more about the man than anything in the film’s dialogue.
His enemy-turned-ally, Tullus Aufidius, is played by Gerard Butler. And, as it turns out, when he’s not mindlessly slaying Spartans or mindlessly wooing Katherine Heigl and/or Jennifer Aniston or mindlessly fighting his way through a video game (okay, I’m done), he’s not a half-bad actor. And when you consider a version of the play where characters CAN carry guns and (as they do here), you can see how Butler sort of works in a Shakespearean screenplay.
In fact, the only person that DOESN’T fit in Coriolanus is Jessica Chastain. Perhaps she was just too good as a happy-go-lucky mid-century Southerner, but in Coriolanus, her portrayal of a famous Roman general’s wife is laughable at best. I love her to death as an actcress, but she seems sorely out of place here.
But making up for it is an impressive supporting cast that includes Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox. Redgrave is especially memorable as Coriolanus’ mother who, after watching her son become an enemy of the state, prays for mercy on Rome when Fiennes and Butler ultimately decide to invade the great empire. The scene is perhaps the best in the movie just as Redgrave may have turned in the strongest performance amongst her peers.
Cox is fine as the Roman senator Menenius, who might be the closest thing Coriolanus has to a friend in Shakespeare’s fabricated world (think of a slightly less-loyal Dr. Wilson to Gregory House). Successfully triumphing over the broad range of emotions his character needs to deliver for the film to work, Cox quickly becomes the character around which the emotional ebbs and flows of the movie are based. The only slight nitpicky thing is that he overacts at times as if he is delivering Shakespeare on stage rather than on film.
But, I do caution you, this film is not for the average action/war film junkie. John Logan has taken Shakespeare’s unforgettable old-style English and left it largely unaltered for the film. The end result might leave the easily-amused asking for subtitles and not because Sylvester Stallone is still babbling on about his team of Expendables.
Now, if you’re wondering why you haven’t heard of the movie, it’s because it never made wide release in the U.S. While it did make small debuts in New York and Los Angeles (and later in other major cities), it never really generated much mainstream buzz. And that’s a shame because it is more than deserving of the awards (Golden Berlin Bear nominee (61st Berlin International Film Festival), and BAFTA Award for Outstanding Debut (Ralph Fiennes)) it has already won.
Luckily for you, Coriolanus is now available through Netflix and Redbox as it was released for distribution yesterday. And, if you haven’t caught my drift so far, Coriolanus is well worth a watch. Just don’t expect it to help you pass that literature final you have next week!
FINAL GRADE: B+
When Bryan isn’t writing, he is on Twitter! Follw him @bclienesch!