Film Review: “Coriolanus”

by Jason LeRoy on February 3, 2012

Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, and Vanessa Redgrave in CORIOLANUS

starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, James Nesbitt, Paul Jesson

written by: John Logan

directed by: Ralph Fiennes

MPAA: Rated R for some bloody violence

As an unapologetically juvenile person, I must begin by laughing at the title. After I first heard the word (which was in connection to this film; like many, I was unfamiliar with the Shakespeare play on which the film is based), I steadily insisted that the final two syllables in Coriolanus rhymed with “Janis.” It wasn’t until I saw Ralph Fiennes inexplicably promoting the film during a pajama party on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live that I finally accepted the truth: it don’t rhyme with Janis. It’s pronounced Coriol-anus. And there’s nothing I can do about that but laugh. That, and take comfort in the fact that I’m in good company with Cole Porter, whose Kiss Me, Kate song “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” includes the line, “If she says your behavior is heinous,/Kick her right in the Coriolanus.”

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, let’s proceed to a discussion of the film. Fiennes, who plays the (ahem) title role, is also making his directorial debut here, and has decided to take the iambic pentameter of the original text and transplant it to a modern setting. This is always a risky choice, one that can possibly alienate both literary purists as well as mainstream moviegoers who haven’t bothered trying to understand Shakespearean dialogue since reading Hamlet senior year. But Fiennes has crafted a bloodily exciting, explosively dramatic retelling of this somewhat forgotten story that will likely offer crossover appeal to both sides of the aisle.

Before receiving the cognomen of Coriolanus, Fiennes’ character is plain old Caius Martius, a lauded Roman general who is not exactly known as a friend of the people; the film opens with him denying hungry citizens access to a grain factory during a bread shortage. Openly contemptuous of the concept of popular rule, Caius is nevertheless a genius on the battlefield. This comes into play when the Romans learn of a Volscian plot to invade their city. The Volscian army is commanded by Aufidius (Gerard Butler), Caius’ sworn nemesis.

When Caius returns victorious from the (very bloody) battle, he is celebrated as a hero and given the “Coriolanus” third name by Cominius (Brian Cox, or as I thought him to be throughout the film, Rip Torn), a patrician general to whom Caius reported as deputy during the battle. Caius is firmly opposed to any celebration of his accomplishments, and is pushed further out of his comfort zone when his ambitious mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), a decorated officer in her own right, pressures him to capitalize on his newfound standing as a war hero by running for consul.

He gives in to her pressure and tries putting on his best baby-kissing campaign face, but is deeply uncomfortable with the idea of it all. Meanwhile, two Roman tribunes, Brutus (Paul Jesson) and Sicinius (James Nesbitt), are very aware of Caius’ less-than-democratic ideas about civil liberties and citizens’ rights, and whip up a scuttlebutt among the Romans that Caius is actually their enemy. He has a truly volcanic response that only furthers their scheme, and soon the people have banished him from Rome. But when he forms an unlikely alliance with Aufidius to avenge himself on those who betrayed him, it threatens to get all kinds of Shakespearean-tragedy up in here.

One of the first things we see in Coriolanus is a television, which immediately calls to mind the opening sequence of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, another Shakespearean adaptation set in modern times. And like Luhrmann’s film, Fiennes relies on news clips to communicate vital details about the setting, exposition, characters, and plot development. The only difference (other than the lack of a Butthole Surfers song) is that Fiennes has his cast speak in British accents; admittedly, this makes a far bigger credibility distinction — at least on this side of the pond — than it probably should. Consequently, the average American audience will likely assume that this is just how British newscasters speak. Just kidding! The average American audience won’t see this movie.

In addition to a very impressive directorial debut, this is also one of Fiennes’ finest and most scarily intense performances. The character of Caius is one of the most tragically conflicted protagonists in the whole Shakespearean oeuvre, and Fiennes nails his every disturbed nuance. As Aufidius, Butler effectively fixes the same steely expression in his eyes for the duration of the film while speaking in his natural brogue for added gravitas. The wonderful Brian Cox has perhaps the deftest touch with the dialogue, while the delightfully ubiquitous Jessica Chastain beautifully registers the overwhelmed resentment of Caius’ wife, Virgilia.

But Chastain mostly plays second fiddle to the towering performance of Vanessa Redgrave, in perhaps the year’s most woefully underrated turn. Shame, shame, shame on the Weinstein Company for putting all their Best Supporting Actress promotional might behind Berenice Bejo for The Artist when they could have been drawing attention to this work. This is the meatiest screen role Redgrave has had in decades, and she summons such full-throttle intensity that you almost fear for her health. When she takes a military base by storm in the film’s climactic scene and holds forth in a cavernous space full of men with guns, you never for a moment question the most volatile element in the room.

Still, Coriolanus is widely considered to be minor Shakespeare (by those who consider it at all), and all the inspired directing and powerhouse acting in the world can’t make this film that much better than the play on which it is based. It ultimately feels quite anticlimactic, perhaps because it doesn’t end with the traditional Shakespeare-tragedy bloodbath. Hell, most of the characters survive! But Fiennes and his gifted cast have crafted the best and most exciting film possible from this cynical tale of ambition gone awry.

Coriolanus opens in the Bay Area today.

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