The tragedy of Coriolanus is that a brutish man, prone to burst of violence can be undone by an act of compassion towards those he loves.
Director Ralph Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan make the choice to trim down Shakespeare’s text, conveying that tragedy visually, while creating a film adaptation of the play that is not restrained by absolute faithfulness to the source material.
Fiennes stars at Gaius Martius Coriolanus, a Roman general, whose skills as a warrior makes him something of an anti-hero among the people whom he has open contempt for. They love and hate him within the same scene at times. The scowl on Fiennes face makes his every word seem like it comes from pure rage. His performance gives the film an intensity that would otherwise be lost on stage. He doesn’t even need to spit out the Bard’s words or stab an enemy for the viewer to know that he is a man fueled by anger. A simple glare conveys all we need to know about him.
Early in the film, Coriolanus, after brutally killing an enemy, emerges victorious, walking towards a group of soldiers, his face streaked with blood, almost like war paint. There is no doubt that this is a man who will fight to his last breath, and that makes him a compelling character to watch. Fiennes’ performance can evoke sympathy from the viewer, even when he is at his most monstrous.
His mother, Volumnia, played by Vanessa Redgrave and his wife Virgilia, played by Jessica Chastain, allow Fiennes tender moments in between his bursts of violence and anger. They are his Achilles heel, and yet the only thing that really makes the character anything else than a single-minded warrior.
Redgrave steals most scenes. She gives a tender and powerful performance, showing the strength of a determined, politically minded woman and the compassion of a mother at the same time, while Chastain does her best, but is rarely captivating. Chastain is usually a solid actress, but her performance seems underwhelming when compared to heavy hitters such as Fiennes, Redgrave and Brian Cox as the Roman Senator Menenius. She seems to drop the ball on more than one occasion and often fades into the background.
Performances make or break any Shakespeare film and there can be very little room for weak links in the chain.
Although the film is set in some place called Rome, Coriolanus was shot in Belgrade, Serbia, and the location works well, especially after Coriolanus’ exile. He is shown walking through the cold, gray towns, conveying the harshness of his expulsion in a way only an Eastern European shooting location provides.
The film is transposed into modern day times, where swords become automatic weapons, and discussions between citizens in the play become television news panels. This modernizing of the play gives the film modern day significance, especially when exploring the idea of a patriot exploited by politicians for their own gain, and what happens when they can no longer control that patriot. Coriolanus is a wild guard dog that can never be made to behave, and it’s no wonder that as soon as he develops political aspirations, the politicians turn against him because they are afraid he is going to bite them. They are soon faced with the choice of putting the dog to sleep or casting him out into the wilderness.
Coriolanus is especially strong when we see the titular character unleashed. The film is bloody, as any Shakespearean tragedy should be, but not gratuitous. The violence is never artsy, but brutal in a way that a dogfight can be. The handheld shots of Fiennes stabbing enemies give the brutal scenes of violence a frenetic energy that conveys Fiennes rage. The most effective fight scene is the first between Martius and Tullus Aufidius, played by Gerard Butler. Close, tight shots of Martius and Aufidius, wrapped around each other, almost in a bear hug, are reminiscent of a UFC fight at its bloodiest, and if they were given knives. With bombs going off in the background, the fight scene makes it seem like the entire war is being fought by two men.
Although Fiennes’ film takes certain liberties with the source material, it is loyal to Shakespeare’s vision, capturing the tragedy of a man that has become a killing machine, manipulated by the politicians, lauded as a hero and loved by his family, but lost in his own hate.
It is the Shakespeare film for the person who doesn’t usually like Shakespeare. It’s a compelling piece of work that tries to stand apart from typical film adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, and succeeds as a film by being quiet, relying on the performances of the actors rather than the words of the immortal Bard.
Jay Reid is a Bard Brawler, writer and director.