Thursday, May 16, 2013

Coriolanus (2011)

Coriolanus (2011), the directorial debut of its star Ralph Fiennes, is an oddity for me in that it's the first time I've seen a movie based on a play by William Shakespeare that I have not read the text of nor been familiar with the plot. Because it's a tragedy, I knew it would not end happily for our hero, but unlike other plays, I can't really speak to what's been cut out or re-arranged.

Roman general Caius Martius (Fiennes) is blamed by the general population for hardship in the city resulting from war between Rome and Volsci. The Volscian Army is led by Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), who Martius has fought many times, and in their latest battle, Martius captures the city of Corioles. Dubbed Coriolanus for his victory and courage, Martius is encouraged to run for consul within the senate, much to the dismay of two tribunes, Brutus (Paul Jesson) and Sicinius (James Nesbitt). Manipulated into publically displaying his contempt for the common people and the idea of popular rule, Martius is exiled and deemed a traitor. With nowhere else to turn, he goes to his hated enemy Aufidius, and the two plan to attack Rome. When the pleas of a senator, Menenius (Brian Cox), fail to dissuade Martius, his wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) and mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) go to reason with him.

Even without having previously read the play or seen any other adaptation, I found the plot of Coriolanus familiar. The political backstabbing  and manipulation of public opinion is reminiscent of Julius Caesar; the warfare, violence, and revenge bare a resemblance to Titus Andronicus; and the Roman setting  was previously used in both.

The stylistic approach Fiennes brings as director is similar to what Ian MacKellan and Richard Loncraine brought to their version of Richard III. In that film, the classic usurper was envisioned as a Nazi-like fascist dictator, and the setting changed to a pre-World War II environment. In Coriolanus, the story is modernized to a decidedly post-9/11, post-Iraq War world. Important speeches and exposition are transmitted via the 24-hour broadcast media, the plebeians have their iPhones out to capture video of footage of riots, the soldiers carry M-16s and AK-47s like they're going door-to-door in Baghdad, and civil uprisings are quelled by police officers with tear gas, shields, and batons. One TV image reveals that Martius has suspended civil liberties. This is a tragedy for the age of no privacy.

That lack of privacy might be why Martius is perhaps the least introspective of Shakespeare's protagonist. Hamlet, MacBeth, King Lear, and so many others got these beautiful soliloquies and monologues that really delved inside their minds and souls and showed how they saw themselves and how they saw the world. With Coriolanus, what you see is what you get: a good soldier with an elitist attitude and disdain for mincing his words. He says what he feels, and that lack of tact gets him into trouble. Anything he says is available for broadcast and dissemination and can be used against him. One minute, you're a hero, and the next, you're a villain.

Thematically, this keeps the movie more relevant with modern times, but at the same time, it makes Coriolanus the character rather flat. He's a flawed individual whose consistency and sense of honor are admirable, but there's little emotional resonance to his downfall (though he is granted one moment of humanity near the end). It's hard to feel for a guy whose joy in life is fighting and who dislikes common people, and he doesn't really change.

Performances cannot be faulted. Fiennes does very well in the self-directed role: stoic, a competent military man, a man always at home on the battlefield but at a loss in the halls of government. His rage is at times frightening and always intense, especially when he lashes out at those who have banished him. Butler is also good; his Aufidius is more of a populist guerilla leader, more in control of his emotions than his long-time rival and savvier. Of the rest of the cast, Redgrave fairs best as the one person who can reason with her son while Cox does well in a rare non-villain role.

Coriolanus plays like a modern action thriller. It's fast paced and exciting and has some stellar performances. Fiennes demonstrates a fair degree of talent behind the camera that matches his skills in front of it, but he also illustrates how the Bard can also play well with modern audiences and resonate, even if the tragedy isn't felt.

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