Coriolanus Could Make New Fans for the Bard
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2012 17 Feb
DVD Release Date: May 29, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: January 20, 2012 (limited); February 17, 2012 (wider)
Rating: R (for some bloody violence )
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Adaptation
Run Time: 122 min.
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Actors: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain, Lubna Azabal, Ashraf Barhom
Riots. Food shortages. The suspension of civil liberties. All are elements of contemporary and futuristic stories about government run amok. All are things we’ve seen reported, and speculated about, in the news recently.
But what do those things have to do with Shakespeare?
Coriolanus, starring and directed by Ralph Fiennes (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2) and based on one of Shakespeare’s less frequently performed plays, drapes its story of an uprising against Rome in very modern garb. As adapted by screenwriter John Logan (Hugo, Rango), Coriolanus is a gripping, cinematic take on the Bard, anchored by Fiennes’ fierce performance in the title role.
The story’s contemporary feeling is established in the opening moments of the story, as footage straight out of today’s 24-hour cable news channels brings us up to speed on the movie’s setting: the Romans, led by General Caius Martius (Fiennes), are at war with the Volsces, led by Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler, Machine Gun Preacher). “He is a lion that I am proud to hunt,” Martius tells his war counsel, while Aufidius vows that “if I ever I meet him again beard to beard, he’s mine, or I am his.”
The people of Rome, in their anger over a food shortage, have trained their anger on Martius, but when the general takes the Volscian city of Corioles, the populace rallies around him. The Senate awards him a new title, Coriolanus, and, with urging from his mother (Vanessa Redgrave, Anonymous) and the support of his wife (Jessica Chastain, The Help) and Senator Menenius (Brian Cox, Rise of the Planet of the Apes), he pursues the office of Consul. But when other politicians turn the public against him, Martius seeks revenge by fighting against Rome alongside his longtime enemy Aufidius.
Themes about political compromise, the abuse of power and the consequences of personal betrayal give Coriolanus a timeless quality, but the look of the film is very much of the here and now. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, who shot The Hurt Locker, brings to Fiennes’ film an intensity and disorientation to the battle footage that’s reminiscent of that Best Picture Oscar winner. The vivid filmmaking and the striking battle of wills between Martius and Aufidius is enough to carry along viewers who might struggle with the Old English dialogue, but in the hands of pros like Fiennes, Redgrave and Cox, the words are delivered with a pleasurable confidence that enables viewers to follow. Even Butler, who’s not been challenged in his earlier film roles with anything approaching what he has to do in the role of Aufidius, gives a more than passable performance, indicating the actor is up to better written parts than those he has done so far.
While Shakespeare’s plays are assigned to students as young as junior-high age, Coriolanus is bloody and violent, earning its “R” rating and making the film inappropriate for those younger than 17 (even though most teens will have likely seen far more graphic films than Coriolanus). It’s a worthy addition to the modern Shakespeare movie canon. If it’s not quite in the same league as Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and Akira Kurisawa’s Ran (an adaptation of King Lear), it’s a bold step forward for Fiennes as a filmmaker and another successful effort to show Shakespeare’s relevance in a media-saturated culture always ready to lavish attention on the next hot property and rising star.
- Language/Profanity: “A-s.”
- Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: A couple scenes of drinking.
- Sex/Nudity: Kissing; brief scene of Coriolanus laying next to his wife in bed, and she touches his chest.
- Violence/Crime: Riots, followed by police beatings of rioters; a gunshot to the head; a stabbing; a dead woman and child shown; battle fighting; knife against a throat; a wrist is slit.
Religion/Morals: Coriolanus’ wife, mother and son get on their knees to beseech Coriolanus and make a prayer-like gesture toward him; they say “the heavens do open” and “the gods look down.”
Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.