Thursday, January 26, 2012

Movie Review: Coriolanus

Coriolanus ****
Directed By: Ralph Fiennes.
Written by: John Logan based on the play by William Shakespeare.
Starring: Ralph Fiennes (Caius Martius Coriolanus), Gerard Butler (Tullus Aufidius), Brian Cox (Menenius), Jessica Chastain (Virgilia), Vanessa Redgrave (Volumnia), Paul Jesson (Tribune Brutus), James Nesbitt (Tribune Sicinius), Lubna Azabal (Tamora), Ashraf Barhom (Cassius), John Kani (General Cominius), Dragan Micanovic (Titus Lartius), Harry Fenn (Young Martius).

I think the reason why Coriolanus is not one of Shakespeare’s best known plays is because the lead character lacks the human frailty that so many of Shakespeare’s characters have. Like Othello, he is a returning war hero, without the knowledge to navigate through the political minefield back home. Like Macbeth, his ambition to be ruler is less his own than that of a powerful woman who holds sway over him. And like Hamlet, he wants vengeance. But Caius Matius Coriolanus does not have the more humanizing qualities of those other characters – he doesn’t love his wife, Virgilia, like Othello loves Desdemona which allows him to be driven mad with jealously. He regards her coldly – hell, he even regards his son coldly as well. He isn’t plagued with Macbeth’s doubts about whether he’s doing the right thing – he’s an upper class war hero who has led Rome to countless victories on the battlefield, and been repeatedly scarred, so he doesn’t feel the need to flatter the common people – who at his nicest moments, he refers to as “curs” – even though he needs their approval to become Consul. And he is not plagued with the self doubt or introspection of Hamlet, who wavers in his thirst for vengeance for almost the entire play. No, Coriolanus is a ruthless killing machine, brutal and uncompromising throughout. His sin, as all Shakespearian figures need one, is pride, but his downfall is brought on less by it than on the fact that at heart, this brutal, ruthless killer is a mama’s boy.

Ralph Fiennes’ bold, updated version of Coriolanus is the best screen adaptation of Shakespeare I’ve seen in more than a decade – since Julie Taymor’s 1999 film Titus. Fiennes sets the film in modern day, and that works out amazingly well. The film opens with common people in Rome protesting their government’s actions of hording grain and keeping it for themselves (gee, that could never happen today). The film’s portrait of a city, a country really, torn apart, and split into the rich and poor feels surprisingly contemporary and realistic. This is a deeply cynical film about people and their leaders – there is really only one decent character in the whole play, and Fiennes changes his ultimate fate from the play, to make it even more downbeat – offering little to no hope that things will ever actually change.

The opening scenes, of the riot, and the war between the Romans and the Volscians, is shot with shaky, handheld cameras, a tactic, I usually hate, but Fiennes and his cinematographer(Barry Ackroyd) use this technique properly – more Paul Greengrass than Michael Bay – as the action remains clear throughout. An extended knife fight between Fiennes Coriolanus and Gerald Butler’s Tullus Aufidius, the Volscian General, and Coriolanus’ sworn arch enemy – is particularly well handled, and has the visceral, vicious feel that this type of camera work can convey when done properly.

The visuals settle down when Coriolanus returns to Rome, once again, a hero. The elderly Consul is set to step aside, and Coriolanus has the support of Senator Menenius (Brian Cox) to take his place. Coriolanus sees himself as a warrior, and not as a politician, but his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) wants glory for the family name, and encourages him to seek power. But Coriolanus is stubborn and prideful – he refuses to sit in the Senate to hear his own accomplishments listed, and even when the Senate grants his approval, he refuses to give a speech, like is customary. But he also needs the approval of the Commoners to gain power, and his pride will not allow him to flatter them – nor to show off his battle scars. The Commoners grant their approval, but egged on by their representatives in the Senate – Brutus and Sicinius (Paul Jesson and James Nesbitt), and the lead rioters we saw at the beginning (Lubna Azabal and Ashrad Barhom), quickly decide that Coriolanus has duped them into consenting – and want another chance to reject him – which they do – and he ends up banished. Infuriated that the commoners would treat the likes of him with such contempt, he seeks out his arch nemesis Tullus, and wants to join the Volscians in an assault on Rome.

Coriolanus is one of the bluntest lead characters in all of Shakespeare – he has few speeches, and says precisely what he thinks at all times. His stubbornness and his pride define him, and if not for the constant prodding of Volumnia, would never have sought higher office in the first place. Fiennes underlines the Oedipal feelings between these two throughout the movie. Coriolanus barely has time for his wife at all, and dismisses her easily, but every time his mother opens her mouth, he is powerless to disagree with her. Whatever she wants, he grants her. Redgrave’s performance is the finest in the movie – one of the finest of her distinguished career. She doesn’t make Volumnia into a harpy or a nag – as would have been easy and obvious – but that doesn’t mean she isn’t monstrous – she’s just nicer about it, subtlety manipulating Coriolanus at every turn. Told to go off to war by her, he does it, and distinguishes himself greatly. Told to try and become Consul, he does that as well – and may well have succeeded if he had gotten out of his own way. And when he leads the Volscians back to Rome in battle, he refuses to hear out his former brother in arms Titus or even Menenius, and is not moved in the least by Virgilia or even his son. But when Mommie Dearest opens her mouth, he cannot help it, and caves – which is what ultimately leads to his downfall.

While Redgrave delivers the best performance in the movie that takes nothing away from the rest of the wonderful cast. Brian Cox is the only character in the movie who thinks beyond his own needs, towards what is good for Rome, and when Coriolanus rejects him, he looks as if his heart has been broken. Jessica Chastain, who had a great 2011, is fragile, sensitive and fearful as Virgilia, never quite sure if she should stand up, either to her husband or her mother in law. The rest of the supporting cast do their jobs quite well – even in small roles, particularly Jesson and Nesbitt as the Tribunes, who like all politicians, are thinking mainly of themselves when they conspire to take down Coriolanus. The one casting decision I had my doubts about going in was Gerald Butler, but he does a surprisingly excellent job as Coriolanus’ arch nemesis. When Coriolanus comes to him, hat in hands, and asks to team up, and Tullus accepts, the two men embrace, but it’s far from a brothers at arms embrace – and homoerotic subtext simmers beneath the surface, as they almost whisper their lines into each others years. In the films dramatic final scene, Butler almost appears more like a spurned lover than anything else.

And towering above them all is Fiennes’ best work in years as Coriolanus. Fiennes has remarkable eyes that have the ability to look wild and crazy, filled with fury and vengeance. When he becomes almost like a God to the Volscian soldiers, and sits perched above them, with his shaved head, you may well be reminded of Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now – his formerly wild eyes have become cold and dead – fixated on his goal. And yet all of that crumbles away when faced with his mother, when he quite simply melts in front of her. This is Fiennes better than he has been in years. As a director, he matches his abilities as an actor. If he wants to continue directing, he should easily find success.

Overall, I think Coriolanus is one of the best recent adaptations of Shakespeare. It’s contemporary setting works for the film and even makes the film all the more timely. It is further proof that Shakespeare in timeless.

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