Coriolanus (The Weinstein Company, R)

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film Coriolanus_75This is a film that will please not only those who already love Shakespeare, but also fans of action movies.

 

 

film Coriolanus_500

Coriolanus is not among Shakespeare’s best-known plays, but that could change quickly if enough people get out to see Ralph Fiennes’ action-filled, psychologically astute film version. It’s a real movie, not a filmed stage performance, and John Logan’s screenplay uses an approach which also worked splendidly in Ian McKellan’s 1995 Richard III: Use all the technical capabilities of modern filmmaking to tell the story visually, while selectively using Shakespeare’s language to highlight conflicts and characters.

There’s not a lot of talking in Fiennes’ Coriolanus, in other words, but every word that is spoken is well chosen and significant. The result is a film that will please not only those who already love Shakespeare, but also fans of action movies, who may be surprised at how effectively Shakespeare’s words fit in the mouths of characters who also perpetrate a serious amount of graphic violence. (True to Chekhov’s law, the knife you see being sharpened in the film’s opening scene will be put to dramatic use before the credits roll.)

The story, in case you’re not an English major, involves the Roman general Caius Martius (a scary Ralph Fiennes, who also directed), given the title “Coriolanus” after one of his many victories. Coriolanus undercuts his considerable ability as a warrior and leader by his undisguised contempt for those he believes are his inferiors, a category which includes much of the population of Rome. Remember the Board of Trade employees who put signs in their windows during the Occupy Wall Street protests, bragging that they were the 1%? That’s pretty much the attitude of Coriolanus toward most of the world, and thus, despite his victories on the battlefield, his political career is over almost before it begins. He doesn’t entirely self-implode—the maneuverings of a pair of scheming tribunes (Paul Jesson and James Nesbitt) also play a key role—but hell hath no fury like a general scorned, and let’s just say that the story doesn’t end well for anyone.

Fiennes sets the story in the present day, in gritty, nonspecific locations (identified by title cards as Rome and Antium, although they could be any number of cities in the modern world; the film itself was shot in Serbia), and underlines a favorite point of English teachers the world over: that the emotions and actions of the characters in Shakespeare’s play are as relevant to our present day as they were to English audiences in the early 17th century.

Fiennes makes great use of the contemporary forms of media to tell his story. We often see the characters being interviewed on television, exposition is sometimes delivered in the form of news programming, and every street confrontation seems to involve as many people capturing the action on cell phone cameras as actually taking part. Jittery cinematography by Barry Ackroyd and quick-cutting editing by Nicolas Gaster creates a sense of contemporary reality in the action sequences, which effectively contrasts with the bland talking heads on television talk shows whom we often see discussing the events of the day.

It takes a certain kind of actor to not only deliver Shakespeare’s lines, but to do so effectively while playing a modern-day character, and Fiennes has assembled a fine cast who are more than up to the task. Vanessa Redgrave steals every scene she is in as Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother and the source of his ambition, while Jessica Chastain is also excellent in a much smaller role as his neglected wife Virgilia. Brian Cox is thoroughly enjoyable as Coriolanus’ advisor Menenius, John Kani is regal as the general Cominius, and Gerard Butler is a perfect fit as the Volscian leader (and Roman arch-enemy) Tullus Aufidius. | Sarah Boslaugh

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