There comes a point in every young man’s life when he must rip off the shackles of his predecessor’s oppressive influence and say, “Mom, I’m not going to finish the brussels sprouts. Fuck brussels sprouts.” In Coriolanus, however, the eponymous main character hasn’t taken this big step, and apparently neither has Ralph Fiennes, who directs and stars in this misconceived passion project and can’t seem to defy his own predecessor, William Shakespeare, to find the heart of the story in its translation to present day.
Set in “a place calling itself Rome”, (really, somewhere in the Balkans) and advertised as a badass military thriller, the film doesn’t aim solely for the usual art-house crowds who will see anything with Shakespeare’s name on it. It’s even targeting the teenage boys who can’t stand his plays in high school English class, but might be willing to make an exception in order to see Voldemort battle Leonidas in a live-action version of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.
Despite the updated setting, the story remains the same: a brilliant Roman general, Caius Martius, risks his life for his country by helping win a war against the Volscians, returns as a hero honored with the name Coriolanus, but then soon finds himself betrayed by the very citizens he was protecting. Upon banishment, he joins up with his arch-rival, subtexual-lover, and head of the Volscian army, Tullus Aufidius, to seek revenge against his home country — where there’s no one awesome enough to stop him.
Ideally, modernizing Shakespeare should improve accessibility and help a contemporary audience jump the four hundred year gap to grasp the universal themes and ideas in a familiar, relevant context. With Coriolanus (and many other works), the bard himself employed this tactic, choosing the bits he liked from Plutarch and other historical sources, but changing key details of Roman history to mirror the peasant grain shortage revolts and the government structure in early 17th century England.
Remarkably though, Fiennes’s modernization does the exact opposite, rendering the film even less accessible than in its original ancient Roman setting. By staunchly sticking to the original plot structure, he undermines the “realism” of his world where, apparently, two-hundred idiotically inconstant citizens make up the entirety of the city’s population, sidestep every government process and banish a war hero, who should, by all logic, have the control and loyalty of his army. Sure, the film has some clever integration of technology by staging conversations over televisions and webcams or replacing the “citizen” characters with news pundits; and Fiennes manages to do this without ever calling attention to these conventions, unlike Baz Luhrmann’s wink-wink close-ups of guns that say “sword” on them — a joke that just made you die a little more remembering it.
Altogether, though, the world feels awkwardly constructed, a glaring error in this story especially, because the plot’s biggest stakes revolve around the fate of Rome as a symbol and location, rather than the fates of any individual characters. It’s Coriolanus’s love for his city that’s being tested and betrayed, and it is the city that is in danger of being destroyed. When the world isn’t fully thought out enough to be a believable representation of a real place, or even an alternate fantasy setting (like Loncraine’s memorable Richard III adaptation set in a 1930’s fascist England), it’s unreasonable to expect an audience to be invested in anything about it.
Admittedly, part of the reason Richard III works so well is that the source play itself is excellent. Coriolanus is simply a weaker work with flat, unsympathetic characters and fewer classic set-piece moments to anticipate. It’s politically complex with bleak ideas regarding history’s endless cycles of violence for power or the conflicts between personal identity, familial and socio-econonomc responsibility. This complexity though, is the result of Shakespeare’s deconstruction of character motives and spreading the blame. Everyone is both right in one way and wrong in another, but this doesn’t deepen such simple characters in a flimsy world; it just makes us more indifferent towards them.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy of this film is that the three fantastic lead performances are restricted by the script’s and the world’s limitations. Fiennes’s portrayal can be hypnotic; in the more explosive scenes he shakes and roars, suffused with rage that takes full advantage of intimate close-ups that can’t be experienced in theatre. Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox are also perfect— Redgrave as Coriolanus’s ambitious and subtly manipulative mother and Cox as a weary, smooth-talking senator and father figure. Unfortunately, the switch from stage to film is more detrimental to their impact on the audience. A stage production relying heavily on these experienced performers (disregarding the spotty Gerard Butler and Jessica Chastain) to create and sell us the play’s world would have been a success. In a film, however, they are subjects confined to an already (poorly) established world and no matter how furiously Fiennes bellows or weeps, he isn’t able to alter our feelings about the awkward stakes for each scene.
The other significant place that film can explore (and theatre can’t) is Coriolanus’s prowess as a warrior, but even that is either staged and edited in the most unappealing way possible for the sole action sequence, or skipped over with news reports of battles. There are a fun three seconds when he crashes through a window, but then again, it’s physically impossible to ruin a shot of people shattering through glass. The trailer promises a straightforward and perhaps cliche story, yet those two minutes are much more rousing than what the full film actually delivers. Instead of only going halfway with a change of scenery and light trimming, Fiennes and his writer John Logan should have been more flexible with their adaptation. Or if they were so set on keeping everything the same, the ancient Rome setting would have been more cohesive and powerful. Even Brian Cox on an empty soundstage reading the play to the camera for three hours would have.
Actually, that’d probably be worth twice the ticket price.
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Written by Tarun Shanker (@tuna365)
After tragically losing his childhood innocence by watching Steven Seagal kick a man under a train in Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, Tarun emerged from the shadows to graduate from NYU with a degree in Film & English and become a mild-mannered New York City assistant by day and a… More »