Coriolanus (United Kingdom, 2011)

January 10, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Coriolanus Poster

Perhaps the biggest surprise with Coriolanus is the non-involvement of Kenneth Branagh who, for the better part of the last 20 years, has been engaged in seemingly every screen adaptation of a Shakespeare play (an exaggeration, but still...). At the time Coriolanus was in production, however, Branagh was busy playing Sir Laurence Olivier, whose stage interpretation of the title character of this movie may be the definitive one in the last century.

Although by no means obscure, Coriolanus is neither as well-known nor as well regarded as Shakespeare's great tragedies: MacBeth, Hamlet, and King Lear. Most likely penned at a date later than all three, this is a polished tale of revenge and betrayal, but one that lacks the introspection of the "Big Three," with Coriolanus (played here by Ralph Fiennes) rarely taking time to reveal his internal thoughts and/or turmoil via soliloquies. One can assume that Fiennes was drawn to make this his directorial debut by its relative "newness" to the screen. The play, although frequently staged by companies around the world, has never received a big-screen treatment. There have been two TV versions, but the most recent was shown nearly 30 years ago. For Shakespeare neophytes whose primary familiarity with the Bard has been through the cinema, watching Coriolanus may seem like unearthing a lost treasure.

As has been popular in recent Shakespeare adaptations, Coriolanus has undergone a major revamping of its setting, recasting events in a parallel universe where modern cities of Rome and Antioch represent the locations of interest. Wars are fought using tanks and artillery with cable news reporting all the details. The world established by Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan is reminiscent of the one through which Ian McKellan travelled in the 1995 version of Richard III. Of course, in order to cram the entirety of the play into a tidy two-hour running time, Coriolanus has undergone significant editing. The end result is that, although the final cut is fast-moving and spare, it can be difficult to follow. Like the recent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it demands unreserved concentration and is unforgiving of someone whose attention drifts elsewhere.

The play Coriolanus transpired around 500 B.C., but the time period of the movie has been rendered irrelevant. Caius Martinus Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes) is Rome's greatest general; his unpopularity skyrockets with the "common people" when he utilizes his power and influence to prevent them from having open access to the city's grain stores. While he is away in battle with the Volscian army and its leader, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), two of Rome's tribunes, Sicinius (James Nesbitt) and Brutus (Paul Jesson), work behind the scenes to have him rejected as consul upon his return. Instead of taking the advice of his wife, Virgilia (Jessica Chastain), and his mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), and adopting a humble attitude in public, he issues a combative denunciation of popular rule. As a consequence, he is banished from Rome. Nursing his sense of betrayal, he plots revenge by offering his service to Tullus Aufidius in an attack against his former home.

Caius Martinus is among Shakespeare's least interesting tragic heroes. His flaw - the Shakespearean favorite of hubris - is evident, but he lacks the depth evident in Hamlet and Lear. One feels little sympathy at the character's banishment (even though it may be seen as unjust) because Caius Martinus brings it upon himself. By dressing the lead in a military uniform that recalls the Nazis and by shaving his head, Fiennes virtually assures that viewers will reject any form of identification with the would-be consul and eventual traitor.

It's easy to see Coriolanus' relevance to current events, with the theme of a popular uprising against dictatorial/fascist rulers striking a strong chord of familiarity. One of the reasons Shakepeare's plays are considered timeless is because their commentaries upon human nature remain germane across the years. Coriolanus, although deemed a "minor" play by many critics, will never go out of style because, short of the establishment of a utopian world rule, there will always be citizens' uprisings against repressive governments. The ease with which Fiennes and Logan are able to make wholesale changes to the setting is proof of the story's universality.

From a performance standpoint, most of the movie's energy derives from Fiennes, who plays Caius Martinus with a hint of Voldemort. He's a combination of brilliant tactician and mad dog, with the latter taking over whenever he makes a speech. Gerard Butler is surprisingly low-key; one might have expected something more in the line of his work in 300. Brian Cox, as Senator Menenius Agrippa, has a rare opportunity to play a non-villainous role. (Somewhere along the way, Cox has become typecast as a bad guy - maybe it has to do with having once played Hannibal Lecter/Lecktor.) The only other performer of note is Vanessa Redgrave, who is given sufficient screen time to warrant a mention. Her delivery of Volumnia's lines remind us of what a great actress she is.

Despite the pedigree of its cast and production team, Coriolanus became orphaned as a result of The Weinstein Company's limited marketing funds. Although technically eligible for 2012 Oscar consideration (having received a limited release at the end of 2011), the movie is being accorded a bare minimum in the way of publicity, and that would make any nominations a surprise. Coriolanus deserves to be seen, however, especially among those who enjoy Shakespeare without considering themselves purists. It's violent, bloody, fast-paced, and powerfully acted. And, if the language represents a barrier of sorts, it's worth remembering that some of the greatest phrases in history derive from Shakespeare's texts.

Coriolanus (United Kingdom, 2011)

Run Time: 2:03
U.S. Release Date: 2012-01-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1