Bottom Line: I grant high marks to Coriolanus. (Iambic pentameter, anyone?)
Directed by: Ralph Fiennes
Starring: Brian Cox, Gerard Butler, James Nesbitt, Jessica Chastain, Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave
When I am grading war movies, I’d say about fifty percent of the final score is devoted to how reverently the film demonstrates war. For example, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA earned a solid A, due to its poignant, moving value; whereas BLACK HAWK DOWN earned a C-, basically the result of bumping down a letter grade by every time its mindless action lost me ten brain cells. CORIOLANUS is a bit different. Yes, it’s certainly a war film in some respect, but it’s actually a bit more a revenge thriller. Had this meant to be saddening in its depiction of the subject matter, it would have failed.
CORIOLANUS takes its story from a seemingly overlooked Shakespearean tragedy. Rather than an adaptation faithful to the 5th century BC setting (Shakespeare is thought to have written his adaptation in the 17th century AD), the story is a modernization***. This becomes clear within the first thirty seconds of the film. On live television, a riotous insurrection is being held against Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes), a powerful Roman general who they feel is to blame for the city’s problems and the violent conflict between a neighboring people, the Volsci. He is not only a feared man, but also a well venerated one. Upon being granted the cognomen “Coriolanus”, he is encouraged to run for consul at the Roman Senate. Unsupported, Caius Martius Coriolanus is enraged and is thus banned from the city. Even my infuriated by the way his city has betrayed him, he consults with Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), the commander of the Volscian Army and his sworn archenemy, and allies with him to seek revenge on the city of Rome.
It takes some chutzpah to take a (true) story nearly two and a half millennia old and transform it into something contemporary. For the most part, director Ralph Fiennes does this fabulously. Everything about this looks distinctly modern: clothing, warfare, lifestyle, you name it. The fault lies in the written component by John Logan, the scribe of recent classics such as Martin Scorsese’s THE AVIATOR and Gore Verbinski’s RANGO. Those two films used a fantastic script to combine style and conversation effectively. It’s undeniable CORIOLANUS has style, especially when it’s about as tastefully brutal as THE GODFATHER. The dialogue is what doesn’t fit the modern setting. Some of the time, the characters speak casually, but often times, it sounds as if they are stage actors and actresses, that have rehearsed fifteenth century characters to the point of obsession. It goes back to the dialogue in Shakespeare’s work, in other words.
Though they may have suffered from stiff dialogue, the characters delivered. Not one of the performances was anything that closely surrounds mediocrity, especially Ralph Fiennes. It’s always impressive to have someone behind and in front of the camera, but it’s even more so when he or she or leading in both ways. It’s absolutely mind-blowing when you have somebody like Fiennes himself, who is at the very top of his game as director and leading actor. It would be a sin for the Academy to not bestow upon him a nomination for both Best Director and Best Actor, come early 2013. Even the film’s audience somewhat fears him as Caius Martius in the beginning of the film. His role grows stronger and stronger, leading up to one of the most shocking conclusions I have ever witnessed.
CORIOLANUS is not a film for everyone. Ironically (another nod to Shakespeare), Shakespeare diehards may very well find this dull. In fact, I cannot imagine a Shakespeare fan enjoying any modern rendition of his work. However boring they may find it, I simply cannot understand anyone who can find it in his or her heart to call the film unwatchable. Maybe this is because modernizations are for non-fans, who find overly faithful adaptations far too boring. With that said, I leave you knowing that the film is a main course well done thriller, with a side dish of great actors and commendable direction.
***It’s a sophisticated one. When you hear of a Shakespeare modernization, please don’t think of Ethan Hawke pacing through a Blockbuster store, reciting the famous “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy, as was done in 2000′s Hamlet.
7/17/2012 7:24 PM EST – Addendum: I was just informed that to my dismay, Coriolanuscan be nominated for neither the Best Director Oscar nor the Best Actor Oscar. It was eligible as a 2011 film in the Academy’s eyes–despite a 2012 American release. I’ll have to assume they all just love Shakespeare for committing a blasphemous act like nominating Ralph Fiennes for his excellence.