Ralph Fiennes is Caius Martius, an experienced and successful soldier and general in Rome (which looks an awful lot like modern day Belgrade). He has just fought the Volscians, led by his enemy Aufidius (Gerard Butler). Back home, the now Caius Martius Coriolanus he seems set for a career in politics. However, his attempt to become Consul in the senate hit a few snags. You see, Caius Martius is a pompous prick of a human being who thinks himself well above the people and can’t be arsed when it comes to actually going to talk to the common folk. He’s a soldier, not a diplomat. The people of course, riot, and even those closest to him turn on Caius Martius, including his controlling, militant mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave). Exiled from Rome, the now angry and bitterly disillusioned Caius Martius seeks out his enemy Aufidius for a meeting…and that’s when things get really interesting. Brian Cox plays Menenius, Caius Martius’ most loyal political ally, Jessica Chastain plays Caius Martius’ wife, and a sly James Nesbitt is Caius Martius’ chief political adversary.
Although there’s some good acting in debut director Ralph Fiennes’ ferocious 2011 film version of the Shakespeare play, there are serious misgivings I have with it. Firstly, it’s not one of The Bard’s best works, to be honest. There’s nothing profound or frankly very interesting going on here. It’s your typical megalomaniacal military leader getting his comeuppance-type deal. I can’t speak to how original it was in Shakespeare’s day, but since Fiennes and adapter John Logan (“The Last Samurai”, “Sweeney Todd”, “Hugo”, “Rango”) made a choice in either making this film or not, I think I can safely say that they needn’t have really bothered. We get it, Coriolanus is an arrogant, snobby prick and his attitude is going to be his downfall. It’s just too thin, really and I’m not surprised that it’s one of The Bard’s least-staged plays. I get the idea behind it, but perhaps people have been ripping of Shakespeare for so long that the story here seems so obvious and ancient, despite the modern dress.
That leads me to the film’s other big problem. Fiennes (who also played the title role on stage a decade or so before) has reappropriated Shakespeare’s Roman story to a modern context, set in what seems to be the middle of the Balkan Wars, in a place that just happens to be called Rome, and where everyone speaks the Bard’s very stylised dialogue. It’s a nice try and I personally don’t have too much trouble deciphering Shakespearean dialogue as others might, but it never quite comes off. You’re left with the feeling that the modern setting detracts more than it adds, and if the film had to be made at all, it probably shouldn’t have been given a modern setting. It certainly doesn’t serve the main character very well. Even in the Belgrade/Rome it’s set in, his stubbornly pompous, anti-PC, arrogant bastard of a character just wouldn’t rise to such a position now. Perhaps it’s supposed to be set in some kind of dictatorship, but the British parliamentary-style the film’s world seems governed by, would suggest otherwise. The political/TV ‘talking heads’ idea was rather clever, but the actors in those roles are unfortunately a bit wooden. It’s all a bit corny, really, though it’s certainly more successful than say “Romeo + Juliet”, Geoffrey Wright’s bogan “Macbeth”, or the disastrous “Titus”.
I also didn’t care for the handheld, shaky-cam style of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (“Green Zone”, “The Hurt Locker”, “Captain Phillips”). It’s ugly and unnecessarily shaky. It doesn’t add realism, it adds a distraction in an attempt at synthetic realism. What the film does have, are some terrific performances. Some of the background characters are a tad awkward and forced, and I can’t for the life of me work out who thought American actress Jessica Chastain belonged anywhere near Shakespeare (Why does she have to appear in every movie nowadays?), but pretty much everyone else is up for it. Ralph Fiennes sure does Shakespeare rather brutally and intensely, and that’s true of his absolutely captivating lead performance here. You hang on his every word, and of all the cast members he seems to have the firmest grasp on the language. I don’t especially believe in the modern practise of dumbing down Shakespeare to make it palatable to the hippity hop youth of today, and I certainly can’t stand what Baz Luhrmann did to “Romeo + Juliet”. If you ask me, all you need to do to get people to understand The Bard is find a film version (or even a play, if you’re into that kind of thing) with genuinely excellent performances from actors who know and understand the text. If you’ve got the right actors, the meaning will be conveyed. If it’s not, then that perhaps is more the fault with the person than with The Bard’s text (And believe me, I’m neither a lover nor aficionado of Shakespeare, I simply don’t find him as daunting as others seem to, for the most part). That’s why the 1968 version of “Romeo and Juliet” spoke to me as a teenager in the mid-90s, whereas the Luhrmann version didn’t. Fiennes, in his ferocious performance, conveys the pride and foolish arrogance perfectly so that a) A moron can understand it, and b) The dialogue doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb. Some of the others in the cast aren’t able to do that, but Fiennes certainly pulls it off himself. Also brilliant, and let’s face it, no one will be surprised, is Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’ militant mother. Like Fiennes, the dialogue fits her like a glove, and her character is another in a long line of strong women behind somewhat weaker men. The real surprise for me was one Gerard Butler, who you’d think would be an empty exercise in bluster and brawn. This role requires some depth behind that bluster. Instead of being one-dimensionally loud and macho he’s so bloody persuasive and riveting you wish he were in much more of the film. At 75 minutes too late, he and Fiennes finally meet on screen and it’s captivating and seriously tense stuff. Shakespearean dialogue proves to serve the Spartan Ab Cruncher rather well, I can’t deny. Brian Cox is also solid, if upstaged by most of the others, and James Nesbitt is much more at home here than you might think, giving an enjoyable performance as an opposing politician. Chastain is a bore (partly because her character is one too), and never seems comfortable with the dialogue. Like a lot of non-British actors, she seems to be delivering The Bard’s words without actually understanding them.
A nice idea in theory, but the blend of Shakespearean dialogue and modern setting doesn’t quite come off, despite some strong performances. Fiennes, Butler, and Redgrave are captivating, the film less so.