I’m a Shakespeare fan, and I’m a fan of any good adaptation that takes the Bard’s work and transfers it to another era. Even if you roll your eyes at any mention of Shakespeare (probably because of bad memories of reading Romeo & Juliet in junior high), there’s no arguing that Shakespeare’s plays contain some of the most compelling narratives ever written. If that wasn’t true we wouldn’t see hundreds of filmmakers using his work as the basis of some magnificent films. Last year saw the first-ever theatrical film adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s lesser known works, Coriolanus.
THE FILM: Though he’s best known to today’s audiences as Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter films, Ralph Fiennes is a Shakespearean actor who is a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Coriolanus is not only Fiennes’ directorial debut, but it is the first time this particular Shakespeare play has ever been made into a theatrical movie. That’s surprising because Coriolanus has a relatively straightforward plot, at least by Shakespeare’s standards: Caius Martius (Fiennes) is a Roman general who has a coarse relationship with the people of Rome who have never served their country. After successfully defeating his sworn enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) in battle at the city of Corioles, Martius is bestowed the title of Coriolanus and he is soon pressed by his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) to run for Consul, the leader of Rome. Though he easily gets elected by the Roman senate, the tribunes — two government leaders who represent the common people — remind the commoners of Coriolanus’ past ire against them, and the following events force Coriolanus into an unexpected partnership to resolve his issues with the Roman people.
Despite the references to “Rome” this is a modern retelling, with “Rome” resembling Bosnia or Kosovo and commentary that is played out by talking heads on twenty-four hour news networks. In fact, the war scenes resemble the popular Modern Warfare video games, with Coriolanus stalking Aufidius in shattered buildings with his M-16. But if you’re a fan of those games done rush out and see this yet: yes, it retains the language of Shakespeare. While that’s something that I love — why do a Shakespeare adaptation if you’re not going to use the language? — it obviously makes the movie harder to follow. Even though I know the play I still watched the movie with the captions on so I could follow the language. You’ll also need a basic understanding of the play or, at the very least, how the Roman Senate worked — otherwise you’ll be lost on what all this “Consul” and “Tribune” business is.
Fiennes is a tour-de-force in his role. He looks positively uncomfortable in the political scenes, as many battle-hardened military leaders do when they’re trotted before politicians. When angry the spittle that launches out of his mouth gives him a mad-dog appearance, as does the blood that covers his face during the battle scenes. Other standouts include Redgrave and Brian Cox as Menenius, a political ally of Coriolanus. As usual, a Shakespeare adaptation brings out the best in many actors.
Less impressive is Gerard Butler, who, despite his image on the Blu-ray cover, is really a supporting character here. His dialogue is limited, so he’s not necessarily bad but underutilized — any other tough-looking actor could have pulled it off. A similar case is Jessica Chastain, who plays Coriolanus’ wife. She also fades into the background, especially since all of her scenes involve the much more powerful Redgrave (though that’s the point).
Though the style is similar to the Ian McKellan version of Richard III and Julie Taymor’s Titus, Fiennes’ more realistic approach is a better fit for the material. While this is a well-done adaptation, it just simply isn’t working from one of Shakespeare’s better plays. Because of that, the movie never really has the compelling narrative the talented cast is capable of pulling off.
THE FEATURES: As is the norm these days, you get a Blu-ray and DVD version in one package. The features are on both discs, so you literally have two exact copies apart from the film quality.
Commentary — Ralph Fiennes does the commentary solo here, and though he often slips into Arnold Schwarzenegger commentary mode (you know, when Arnold just explains what is happening on screen) he does give a few insights into the production, including notes about how he altered the original text for storytelling purposes and difficulties he faced as a first-time director. Still, it isn’t one of the better commentaries that you’ll hear.
The Making of Coriolanus — This five minute feature is more focused on the actors and their overall impressions on the filmmaking process rather than technical details. It’s mostly all praise for Fiennes, so he probably will watch this when he’s feeling low.
Movie Rating: A solid, though not overly impressive, modern take on one of Shakespeare’s lesser works (7/10).
Blu-Ray Review: Neither feature is essential, but Shakespeare fans will enjoy Fiennes’ take on the material (5/10).
Coriolanus will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on May 29.