Coriolanus | Film review
Ralph Fiennes blasts one of Shakespeare’s least-heralded tragic heroes into a modern context.
Ralph Fiennes’s intermittently stirring Coriolanus blasts one of Shakespeare’s underperformed plays into a modern context. The text’s fractious Rome has been given a decidedly Balkan flavor, with bits of Iraq and perhaps various South American revolutions scattered in. Updates on senate grappling and popular unrest are delivered by newscast, while violent combat sequences offer lengthy breaks designed to placate anyone who finds the Bard’s moral quandaries insufficiently stimulating. Can’t Shakespeare just be Shakespeare anymore?
These conceptual gambits threaten to overwhelm the language, as do the too-brisk line readings and vérité shooting style. (The cinematographer is The Hurt Locker’s Barry Ackroyd.) Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan serve the play better when drawing parallels to contemporary politics, as war hero Martius (Fiennes), granted the honorary cognomen Coriolanus, finds himself prodded into a campaigner’s life, then exiled for showing contempt toward the masses and the glad-handing required of him. (Bloody Sunday’s James Nesbitt, as Martius’s savviest political rival, gives a standout performance.)
The second half is where Fiennes brings it home, as Martius, banished from Rome, returns to invade his homeland united with his former nemesis (Gerard Butler, whose Scottish brogue obscures his dialogue). None of the previous unevenness can dispel the power of the finale, as the warrior’s pleading mother (a sterling Vanessa Redgrave) begs for mercy from a son torn between aggression and principle. It’s here, in its last flourish, that this Coriolanus seems worthy of such a towering character.