REVIEW: Ralph Fiennes Takes a Dud of a Play and Turns It into a Not-Bad Coriolanus

Movieline Score:

It's dangerous to underestimate modern-day reinterpretations of Shakespeare, a la Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet and Michael Almereyda's Hamlet, not because Shakespeare necessarily needs to be modernized, but because it's astonishing how much retooling, rejiggering and restuffing he can withstand: His work is like a magic carpet bag that never gets filled up or worn out.

So I was curious about Ralph Fiennes's directorial debut, Coriolanus, in which Fiennes himself stars as Caius Martius Coriolanus, the uppity Roman general who finds himself in a pickle when the hungry people of Rome, suffering from a food shortage, decree that their plight is his fault. Proud of his military service and disdainful of those who haven't similarly fought for their country, he denounces the poor, hungry masses, accusing them of, among other things, having bad breath. That plunges Coriolanus into a public-relations nightmare from which he can't recover, the beginning of the end.

When I saw Coriolanus at the Berlin Film Festival last February, no one I talked to -- not even the random sampling of the British critics I know -- had actually read the play. That doesn't mean we shouldn't have read it. But now that I've seen Fiennes's version, I have some idea why the material doesn't always find its way into the basic curriculum: It's kind of a dud. No wonder it was the butt of an old Saturday Night Live joke, in which Robin Williams plays a Shakespearean stand-up who, after Coriolanus flops at the Globe, is cast in the lead of the theater's next production, Hamlet, prompting the line, "Is that a dagger I see, or are you just glad to see me?"

Then again, Fiennes isn't exactly laughing boy, so Coriolanus isn't such an odd choice for his debut film -- and he doesn't do half badly with it, either. Fiennes played the title role in the play 11 years ago on the London stage, and apparently, he's been turning it over in his mind ever since. The resulting picture drags in places, but Fiennes works hard to keep the rhythm going: He stages hand-to-hand combat sequences and knife fights as if he were making a smart action movie, not adapting Shakespeare, which is precisely the point. He told The Guardian, "If Shakespeare was alive today, I think he would write very easily for the cinema," and he's probably right. Nothing perks an audience up like a good rumble, and Shakespeare knew just how and when to drop 'em in.

The cutting in Fiennes's action sequences is clean and clear, not choppy. And Coriolanus's tussles with his sometime-rival, sometime-cohort Tullus Aufidius (played by an amazingly not-horrible, if not exactly good, Gerard Butler) are worked out with the right mix of outright male aggression and twisted mutual admiration. It's only when the two find themselves in the clinch, their musclebound arms wrapped firmly around each other's necks, that they realize they're just two sides of the same coin.

This Coriolanus is set in, as a title card wittily tells us, "A place calling itself Rome," and if it isn't exactly the real Rome (Fiennes shot the picture in Belgrade), it still has the feel of a modern, besieged big city. (The screenplay is by John Logan, who also adapted Hugo for Martin Scorsese.) The angry mob Coriolanus faces is a grass-roots terrorist group; in their rage and hunger they storm Rome's "Central Grain Depot," a bit of made-up silliness that's perfectly believable in the movie's context. (At times, Coriolanus somewhat resembles Alfonso Cuarón's dystopian fantasy Children of Men.)

And if there are slack patches in the narrative, Fiennes and his fellow actors get us through them efficiently enough. Fiennes's Coriolanus is a noble hard-ass with a scarred face and a shaved pate. He's charismatic in a chilly way, and sympathetic only in the sense that, given his taciturn, rigid character, we can usually tell where he's coming from. He's hard to care for, but not easy to turn away from.

But the sleekest weapon in Fiennes's arsenal is Vanessa Redgrave, who plays Coriolanus's tough-love mom, Volumnia. If Coriolanus is cool as steel, we can see where he gets it: Volumnia is his female counterpart, his true partner in his life's work, as the story's incestuous undertones suggest. (The young actress Jessica Chastain plays Coriolanus's retreating, suffering wife, Virgilia.) Redgrave's Volumnia has the carriage of a warrior queen, her voice the smoothness and the bite of honey still in the comb -- she makes even the play's densest language seem as if it were written yesterday, not 500 years ago. In choosing Redgrave, Fiennes went out and hired the best. She's modernity and timelessness in one magnificent package.

Editor's note: This review appeared earlier, in a slightly different form, in Stephanie Zacharek's Berlin Film Festival coverage.

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  • Alex says:

    So, Coriolanus is the Tea Party?

  • Chasmosaur says:

    Okay, I get that this movie isn't going to be for everyone, and it's not like Coriolanus is one of the better known Shakespeare dramas, and it's definitely dark. (See today's interview with Ralph Fiennes).
    But these are some of your recent reviews, in descending rank:
    The Artist - 10
    In Time - 9
    Hugo - 8
    Breaking Dawn, Part 1 - 7.5
    Tower Heist - 7
    Coriolanus - 6.5
    Happy Feet 2 - 6
    The Descendants - 5.5
    I'm am quite curious as to how you come up with these numbers Ms. Zacharek. Because I'm utterly confused. And looking at Rotten Tomatoes, sometimes your reviews are wildly divergent from other critical response (not necessarily a bad thing, I don't always think popular movies are necessarily good, and there are many good movies that should be more popular than they are). But your 6.5 for Coriolanus is considered a "Fresh" review, but your 6 for Happy Feet is considered "Rotten"; I can only assume that's because of the writing, not the number you assigned.
    People can't agree on everything - that would be boring. And I totally cop to inheriting a "Bad Movies We Love" gene from my Grandfather and Mother, who loved nothing more than a good B-movie. But I just can't seem to find a thread through your reviews.

  • For the record: Rotten Tomatoes editors -- not Stephanie or any other staff at ML -- determine a movie's fresh/rotten standing based on the content of the review, not our scores. This confusion has come up before, and I'm sorry about it, but it's out of our control.

  • Chasmosaur says:

    No, I was pretty sure that was the case with RT fresh vs rotten.
    But how is the MovieLine number assigned? Is that up to the individual reviewer or is there some sort of editorial panel? Is there some sort of checklist? Is there any consideration to the concept that something is more mainstream/"popcorn" vs independent/"serious"?

  • Lucy says:

    I feel like the thread through her reviews is really obvious if you actually read them.

  • We do try to keep it the scoring standard across the reviews and reviewers. If a score seems inconsistent with the overall tone or takeaway of the review, then we'll talk about it, but honestly, it's not a science. Ultimately you just need to read the review and draw your own conclusions movie-to-movie the same way our critics do.

  • Chris says:

    Stephanie, Coriolanus is not a "dud of a play." Far from it. It's an unqualified masterpiece, the most overtly political of all Shakespeare's plays, and one of the most penetrating analyses of realpolitik ever written. Coriolanus, quite simply, puts more celebrated and famous classics of political philosophy such as Machiavelli's The Prince and Hobbes' Leviathan, and even Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals in the shithouse.

    How you can believe a piece of banal, cliche-ridden junk like Salt or Mr. and Mrs. Smith is an impressive achievement, yet scant Shakespeare's triumph with this miracle of a play is beyond me. Yes, arts appreciation is to some extent subjective, but at a certain point you owe it to yourself to leave behind childish enthusiasms for baubles and trifles and embrace more challenging, sophisticated art.

    Read Harold C. Goddard's interpretation of the play, or A.D. Nuttall's. You won't still believe it's a "dud" after that.