REVIEW: Ralph Fiennes Takes a Dud of a Play and Turns It into a Not-Bad Coriolanus
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.
Follow Stephanie Zacharek on Twitter.
Follow Movieline on Twitter.