Coriolanus is a long way from being one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays. The Roman plays in general have a not entirely fair reputation for being full of long speeches and low on plot; it’s tempting to meet the title with a shrugged ‘who’ (or ‘what’?); it’s not a very regularly performed play anyway, so it doesn’t have many opportunities to make a bid for the limelight.
So on the face of it this is strange choice of material for Ralph Fiennes on his directorial debut; especially when you consider that he’s also the star. In Fiennes and his adapter’s hands the play becomes a sleek, streamlined political drama with visceral action sequences Transported to “a place calling itself Rome” that plays more like a wartime Bosnia. Coriolanus is heroic general, feted with praise and encouraged, or forced, by his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) to seek the powerful position of Consul. He finds himself unable to play the political games with the people required to get the post; his anger on not getting the position leads to a riot and exile. In exile he forms an alliance with former enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) in order to take revenge.
It’s a tense and gripping watch; the new setting lends greater immediacy and sense of threat, the edits give clean lines a plot that fairly zips along. The action sequences are fine; not outstanding, but suitably brutal to maintain the law of the jungle sense of ancient Rome. The air is suffused with testosterone, with men not backing down from each other. The female characters are cleverly dressed to look more military, if not masculine then at the least not emphasising femininity. This is a male environment, with the smoke of combat never far away. That approach explains the choice of Gerard Butler for the role of Tullus; which would make sense if he didn’t appear so dramatically out of his depth. He alone amongst the cast doesn’t seem comfortable with the language, brooding too much and forgetting to back-up his physical presence with words that are threatening or venomous.
Which is a huge contrast to Fiennes in the lead role. Battle-scarred and, for most of the film, bloodied, when he’s not fighting he’s a caged tiger. It’s clear why men will follow him into battle; haranguing bullet-ridden corpses for a lack of commitment, his men fight for and with their leader. It makes sense of his unwillingness to stay around to hear the story of his exploits; this is a man of deeds, not words. When he’s finally bought face-to-face with his estranged family in a climactic showdown he’s largely silence, trying to keep a crumbling facade in place.
Which all works well as far as plot and the themes of power and alpha masculinity go, but does mean that the film has precious little emotional heft; even in a denouement which should at the least brush the heart, it becomes more of an action movie showdown with much better dialogue. It seems a hard criticism, but ultimately it’s the fruit of the understandable choices made with the plot and style of the film. The updating convinces; the drama grips; the action impresses. It’s just a shame there’s not more heart to go with all the guts.
I rated this film 7/10 on imdb.com and 3.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com
I watched this film at home on tv.