AFI Fest 2011: Coriolanus

Sometimes I think there are reasons why some Shakespeare plays remain largely unknown among his vast repertoire – I have never read Coriolanus or seen it performed, but assuming this is a fairly faithful adaptation in terms of the text itself, it’s just…not that interesting. Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes, who also directs) is a great military leader in Rome (here modernized in everything but language, and acting styles to some degree) whose contempt for anyone not born patrician makes him no friend of the commoners rioting over their lack of food. After a successful war against the invading Volscian army, he’s granted the honorific “Coriolanus” and encouraged to run for the consul, which he does, even briefly gaining the support of the commoners before a pair of conniving tribunes double-cross him and, with the support of the crowd, call for his banishment. He joins the Volsci, becoming the right-hand man of his former blood enemy Aufidius (Gerard Butler) to attack Rome, until his wife and mother (Jessica Chastain and Vanessa Redgrave) beg him to stop.

All of the twists and turns in the plot seem to come out of nowhere, with people changing sides or points of view at the drop of a hat. The script is probably abbreviated from Shakespeare’s play (the film runs just over two hours, about an hour less than most Shakespeare done in full), which might explain some of the disjointedness, but unfortunately it also feels longer than it is. It’s hard to relate to Coriolanus, who has a highly developed sense of honor but is also a total dick a good portion of the time – his shifts from speechifying the commoners to get their support to denouncing them as unworthy to vote are practically bipolar, and so is the crowd’s instant reversals from distrust to support to anger. These may all be problems inherent to the source material, but the overwrought and unintentionally comical acting styles in this section don’t do anything to help it.

Setting the film in a modern-day setting, with modern military uniforms and business suits, tanks and guns, gives it a bit of an extra punch, and I’m definitely a proponent of modernizing Shakespeare – stage versions do this all the time, and I’m glad to see more films attempt the juxtaposition of modern dress and accessories with the original text. This one works fairly well in that regard, the dialogue usually playing fairly well and understandably, until one of the actors gets it into his head to revert to old-school Shakespearean acting for a bit. There’s nothing wrong with old-school Shakespearean acting in the right context, but this isn’t quite it – the art direction and costume design is minimalist, and calls for a much subtler take on the text than Fiennes and company give it here. Some of the film’s best moments, unsurprisingly, are the quiet ones, with Coriolanus lamenting his fall from grace or his mother urging him to reconsider his actions. When the film goes bombastic, it loses credibility quickly.

That said, I will make a slight exception for Vanessa Redgrave, who as Coriolanus’s mother is hands down the best thing in this film. Even when she gets angry and raises her voice, her scenes crackle, and she knows exactly when to bring it back down for quiet moments that carry a dangerous ferocity. Brian Cox as Menenius, the Senator of Rome, is the only one who can match her level of skill with this material. Everyone else, including Fiennes, has an “outrage” setting and a “dull as nails” setting, and little in between. Fiennes is effective here and there, and as director he tries to invest a fairly static story with some visual interest via close-ups and frenetic editing – the war scenes in the beginning are actually fairly well-done, and I’d be happy to watch Fiennes direct something that doesn’t allow him to indulge in red-faced angry outbursts to quite this extent. By the last scenes, when he verbally takes down Aufidius, I couldn’t make myself stop wondering when he was gonna just Avada Kedavra the guy already.

If you have an interest in Shakespeare adaptations, the film is worth watching for Redgrave and Cox alone. Otherwise, you’re likely to find this rough going. I’m enjoying playing “keep up with Jessica Chastain” this year as it seems like she’s in just about every film, but she’s given precious little to do here. That may again be the fault of the original play, or it may just be that Redgrave is so good Chastain never had a chance. She does fall into simpering a time or two, but there are flashes of the Chastain who’s so good in Take Shelter and The Tree of Life, but there’s just not much for her to work with. I’m definitely curious to see her in some meaty period roles, though – perhaps a Portia or a Viola. Ultimately, however, the film is too unwieldy, unable to balance the different acting styles and tones or adequately treat the shifting alliances to become a cohesive whole rather than a jumble of mostly mediocre scenes.

Director: Ralph Fiennes
Screenplay: John Logan
Producers: Ralph Fiennes, John Logan, Gabrielle Tana, Julia Taylor-Stanley, Colin Vaines
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain
Country/Language: United Kingdom, English
Running Time: 122 min

Jandy Hardesty
the recovering academic

4 Comments

  1. Interesting piece, David, thanks for the link. Obviously Adam and I disagree wholeheartedly on Redgrave. I thought she was much more magnetic and interesting to watch than anyone else on screen, most of whom were either yelling or mumbling the whole time.

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  2. It was Fiennes and Butler that I had the toughest time with in the film. As you said, Fiennes pretty much had two modes of acting here: dull and Voldemort. Same with Butler, who couldn’t quite shake his Leonidas persona. I will agree that modernizing the material was effective. I quite liked the juxtaposition of the Shakespearian dialog with the modern wartime setting.

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