- Ralph Fiennes stars as a fierce military leader in the adaptation of the Shakespeare play.
There was an episode of the original Star Trek TV series set on a planet where the Roman Empire had never fallen. When Captain Kirk and his crew visited, there were still battles to the death in the Colosseum, but they were broadcast on TV, with glib emcees and interruptions for car commercials. Star and first-time feature director Ralph Fiennes has done something similar with Coriolanus (showtimes), one of Shakespeare's less-loved plays. The story has been moved to contemporary Rome, with soldiers in battle fatigues using tanks and modern weapons while soliloquizing all over the place.
It's jarring at first, this mix of Shakespeare and testosterone-soaked war movie. Listening to commentators on television using Shakespeare's prose is clever, I guess. It all boils down to the question: does it work? The answer is yes, within the limitations of the play. There are some glaring problems maintaining the integrity of the contemporary setting, which I'll get to in a bit, but the film is as successful as one can expect a truncated adaptation of a flawed play to be.
About the play: Fiennes plays Caius Martius, a fierce military leader just returned to Rome after a major victory (packed with lots of quick-cut battle scenes and big-ass explosions) at the Volscian town of Corioles. He is quickly groomed for a career in politics, with support from his wife, Virgilia (Jessica Chastain), his ambitious and very determined mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), and political insider/family friend, Menenius (Brian Cox, playing nice for a change).
Alas, Caius Martius Coriolanus (thus dubbed after the big victory) is, to put it mildly, not a people person. After a meteoric rise to power, he crashes just as fast and gets exiled from Rome, basically for his hubris. Angry and rattled, he splits town and decides to join forces with his nemesis, the warrior Aufidius (Gerard Butler) and attack Rome.
Coriolanus is consistently interesting, with great acting by most of the cast, particularly Fiennes and Redgrave. I liked Ilan Eshkeri's music choices, but wasn't crazy about Nicolas Gaster's modern war flick editing, which seemed forced. Fiennes and his creative team try hard to be as visually striking as possible. Sometimes it works, sometimes you get a moment like the one where Fiennes and Butler's characters are fighting hand to hand. After much grunting and charging, they end up in the dirt, Fiennes on top of Butler, their foreheads and noses pressed against one another with such pressure it looks like their skulls might crack. It's an effective image, but it looks so damn planned.
And then there's the campaigning scene I complained about earlier. Although every other aspect of life in modern Rome is televised, when Coriolanus reluctantly campaigns for the approval of "the people," he does so not with ads and high-profile TV appearances in town hall meetings. Instead, he goes outside and talks to a group of locals, with no microphones or TV cameras in sight. He wins them over easily, but in what seems to be minutes later, his political opponents visit the same group, pointing out that Coriolanus failed to bare his torso and show them his battle wounds, apparently a mark of disrespect. Plus, they remind everyone that he's a dick. The crowd turns on him in seconds.
The biggest problem with Coriolanus is the lack of insight. The lead character doesn't grow, he doesn't learn. He starts off as a ferocious, prideful warrior and a social lunkhead and he remains just that. The movie is engaging – blunders and all – but despite all the action and duplicity, the emotional payoff is muted.