A couple of months ago, I had the pleasure to see a very funny stage production called “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).” It was pretty much exactly what the title would suggest. The historical epics (“Julius Caesar,” “Richard III,” et al.) were all presented as a football game, with a crown being passed and thrown around. The comedies were all compressed into a single three-minute play. “Titus Andronicus” was made into a cooking show, “Othello” was told as a rap, it was hilarious.
Yet the title turned out to be a lie. For when “Coriolanus” was brought up, the actors just looked at each other and said “Yeah, let’s skip that one.”
I present this anecdote as evidence of the status that “Coriolanus” has among the works of England’s greatest playwright. Hell, despite my constant exposure to Shakespeare through my teenage years, I had never even heard of “Coriolanus” until Ralph Fiennes decided to make a film adaptation of it. So now, having seen the film, I can understand why it’s considered one of Shakespeare’s lesser works.
Forgive me for indulging in spoilers, but I’m pretty sure that the statute of limitations doesn’t apply to works in the public domain.
Coriolanus tells the story of Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes), a general who leads Roman troops into war against the Volscians. In particular, Martius has a very bitter rivalry against the Volscian general Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). They meet to battle in the Volscian city of Corioles, where Martius manages to drive away Aufidius and a whole troop of adversaries almost single-handedly. To commemorate this valor, Martius is bestowed with the surname of “Coriolanus,” after the city he conquered.
The newly-minted war hero is made to parlay his famed military service into a political career, and he’s pressured to run for the Senate. Alas, his political rivals whip the voters into a frenzy against him, reminding them of the pride, the anger, and the disdain he felt against the plebians before he found glory in Corioles. So incensed, the voters force Coriolanus into exile from Rome.
Of course, it turns out that they created a monster. Martius is so enraged that he allies with Aufidius to lead a siege against Rome. And wouldn’t you know it, the guy who rose to fame as a great Roman general has all the skill and knowledge to kick the Romans’ asses.
Finally, Martius is persuaded by his mother to cease the campaign, leading him to negotiate peace between Rome and Volsci soon after. And then Aufidius kills Martius for the trouble. Bit of an anticlimax, no?
Though the story itself is rather weak, it’s easy to see what attracted Fiennes to the play. Here we’ve got anger over economic inequality, war heroes claiming that their service translates into ability to govern, domestic unrest in times of war, the gullibility of voters, the short-sighted stupidity of politicians, etc. There’s a lot of stuff in here that reflects the mindset of modern-day America, and there’s a lot of ripped-from-the-headlines iconography to emphasize the fact. The protest scenes — as well as the banners used in them — will undoubtedly look familiar, as will the expository scenes that are set in some cable news studio. Ditto for the ubiquity of cell-phone cameras.
I realize that it’s not exactly new for Shakespeare adaptations to be set in the modern-day, but it works especially well here… with one exception. See, though the film is clearly set in the modern-day, it’s never made clear precisely where the action is taking place. You might think that it’s in Rome, Italy, except that the setting looks distinctly American, or perhaps British. No, the opening title card tells us only that the film takes place in “A city called Rome.” Thanks for clearing that up, movie. Anyway, it’s just a minor nitpick.
Let’s move on to the cast. Here you’ve got a movie led by Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, and Vanessa Redgrave. This is a cast worthy of The Bard, and no mistake.
Fiennes plays the title role while making his directorial debut, and he does a fine job bringing the fire. That said, it was hard to look at him chewing scenery — completely bald, no less — without the occasional Voldemort flashback. Meanwhile, Vanessa Redgrave gives an equally passionate performance as Martius’ mother, reciting Shakespeare’s dialogue like the seasoned pro that she is.
Initially, I wasn’t sure about Gerard Butler’s ability to play a Shakespearean role with any capability. But then I remembered that before his decline into crappy rom-coms, he was the goddamn King Leonidas. Here, he’s playing another kickass general with a primitive sort of wrath, except that he’s being written by Shakespeare instead of Frank Miller. Needless to say, it’s a huge upgrade. I didn’t realize just how much I missed this side of Butler, but I can only hope it shows up more often.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about Jessica Chastain. She’s playing the concerned wife of Coriolanus and the loving mother of his son. In other words, it’s pretty much the same role that she played to great effect in Tree of Life and Take Shelter. This is her comfort zone, and she knows how to do great work within it. However, her character here serves very little purpose, but that’s hardly her fault. That problem goes back to the original playwright, and — through no fault of his own — strong female characters in Shakespearean plays tend to be the exception, rather than the rule.
Likewise, Brian Cox is similarly short-changed. He turns in an outstanding performance here, and his presence brings a ton of warmth, though his character exits the film in a way that lacks any grace, having accomplished pretty much nothing. What’s even worse is that the filmmakers actually gave his character even more screen time by merging his character with that of a Roman lady named Valeria.
I still haven’t entirely forgiven John Logan for The Time Machine (2002) or Star Trek: Nemesis, though I will admit that his work in crafting a modern-day Shakespeare adaptation is quite good. The story’s hardly perfect, but I’m sure Logan did the best he could with what he had. Faring much better is Ilan Eshkeri, who composes a solid score. Many scenes are totally without music, which makes for a great deal of tension. What little music this film has is very heavy on percussion and low string bursts. It’s very minimalist, and very aggressive. Great stuff for this film.
Probably my biggest problem in this film is in the visuals. Some shots are handheld, some are steady-cam, some shots are too long, some shots are too short, some shots (particularly that last one) are completely pointless. Several shots are also way too close on the character’s faces, which is particularly uncomfortable when Coriolanus is spitting fire and brimstone directly into the camera. There’s even one shot in which the camera moves all around Coriolanus’ face for whatever reason. There just didn’t seem to be any kind of rhyme or reason to the camerawork or the editing, which really distracts from the film itself. Especially during the fight scenes.
To sum up, Coriolanus is a very well-acted modernization of a lesser Shakespeare work. The source material’s more timely aspects are modernized in a very neat way, which helps compensate for a lot of the story’s weaknesses. The film’s biggest problems stem from Fiennes’ inexperience as a director, but I look forward to seeing what he might do with more practice. Hell, he was already able to build a top-notch cast and to coax great performances out of them all. If he ever decides to film another play by The Bard, my ticket is already sold.