Movie Review: Coriolanus

By Stephen Rebello

Ralph Fiennes makes his directorial debut with Shakespeare's tragedy Coriolanus

Director: Ralph Fiennes

Rating: R

Studio: Magnolia Mae Films

Ralph Fiennes starred in a celebrated 2000 London production of Coriolanus and now he’s making his directorial debut with a modern day version of Shakespeare’s tragic study of power, arrogance, political machinations and isolation. Fiennes works from a tense, intelligent screenplay adaptation by John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator) set in a trashed urban wasteland roiling with factionalism and unrest identified here as “a place calling itself Rome.”

He and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker, Green Zone) have created something strong, clear and very much in synch with the frustrated, angry and explosive mood of our times. The movie isn’t a radical, transformative experience on par with Kurosawa’s visionary Shakespearean adaptations like Ran or Throne of Blood. It’s closer to director Richard Loncraine’s revisionist 1995 Richard III, set in a fascistic England, 1930. Not in bad company, though.

With Fiennes as a shaven-headed, ambitious, ruthless military hero who refuses to listen to advisors warning him to cozy up to the rebellious ‘commoners’ whose mere existence repulses him. This Coriolanus bristles with scenes of torture, kinetic, hand-held combat sequences featuring grenades, tanks and starving have-nots rioting over bread. The contemporary grit, blood and brutality juxtaposed against the soaring beauty of Shakespeare’s language sometimes make for an awfully odd fit.  Imagine if soldiers in The Hurt Locker started speaking in iambic pentameter and verse.

Yet the admirably ambitious Fiennes may have piled his plate too high. Even though he is often fascinating in the central role, he is only occasionally as chilling as in a meltdown scene staged during a political TV talk show. Gerard Butler has terrific moments as rebel forces leader Aufidius, Coriolanus’ sworn enemy and unlikely ally, but the entire show is stolen by a pair of old pros.

Vanessa Redgrave is majestic and electrifying as Fiennes’ ferocious, haughty and Machiavellian mother Volumnia; she lifts the movie every time she is on screen. If a supporting actress Oscar nomination, at least, isn’t hers, then we can’t wait to see the performance that can top hers. Brian Cox is superb as the crafty, watchful, ambiguously motivated Menenius. He’s like a character out of a paranoid, highly astute and exciting war thriller — which, in a sense, he is.


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