Coriolanus: film review – Fiennes, 2011 (take two)

[note: yesterday, I reviewed this same filmed version of Coriolanus…but for my Masters course, I had to write a review of a Shakespeare film and I picked this one…you’ll find some overlaps, but a slightly different leaning]

In 2011, actor Ralph Fiennes made his film directorial debut with a theatrical release of Shakespeare’s rarely filmed play, Coriolanus. Noted for both stage and screen performances himself, Fiennes was able to secure major on-screen talent (including Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain, and Brian Cox) to support him in this endeavor. The result is a visceral and accessible, visually striking work.

To make the film as accessible as possible to a modern audience, Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan do a fine job of editing down the text and eliminating language off-putting to today’s movie-going public (for example, “Do as you like” instead of “Do as thou list”). It feels as if nearly half of the play’s text has been excised, replaced by either purely cinematic storytelling, or, in some cases, nothing at all. Logan has reduced many-line speeches to a single or few sentences; while this sounds detrimental, only someone who knows this play well would be able to notice. While this may make the film trimmer, what makes it muscularly powerful are the instances when Logan and Fiennes rearrange scenes: they move the Act Four, Scene Three meeting of two soldiers to after the opening scene, and make it an interrogation of a Roman by Aufidius who ends the scene by killing the soldier then turning to the camera, which then becomes an image on a laptop (a la YouTube) that the Romans, including Coriolanus, watch. There are other times when the film seems to skip scenes in the play only to use the time-jump as a kind of framing device for a more impressionistic revealing of the “skipped” scenes. The audacity of the narrative device is matched by Fiennes’ choice of setting, the modern day in a “place that calls itself Rome.” This lends the film a universality, a kind of “this-is-happening-now” verisimilitude that is buttressed by the use of cable news shots to provide exposition, and the “talking heads” on those channels to deliver lines spoken in the play by nameless messengers, senators and citizens. Also grounding the film in this faux-realism are the exemplary supporting performances, especially those of Brian Cox as Menenius and Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia. Redgrave’s regal physicality and ability to move effortlessly between vocal chiding to iciness helps the audience understand what made Coriolanus the man he is.

Alas, not all the performances are transcendent. Jessica Chastain can do nothing with the weak, thankless role of Virgilia, Coriolanus’ wife. And the cold arrogance of the title character itself is not well served by Fiennes’ too aloof approach to the character. And that clinical approach of Fiennes the actor bleeds over into Fiennes the director putting the focus on a more psychoanalytical reading of the play, and its weirdly Oedipal relationship between Coriolanus and his mother. The problem is that the audience doesn’t get to see the Act Four goodbye between those characters (as Logan and Fiennes reduce the exchange to a kind of voices-in-the-head flashback for Coriolanus in one of the aforementioned time-jump/frames). Also, the deep cuts into the dialogue render the text-based exploration of his motivation and psychology difficult. The filmmakers would have been better off focusing on a more Marxist analysis, as the play’s opening grain shortage and uneasy relationship between the social classes are ready-made for such an interpretation (which is not harmed in the same way by the wholesale excision of text).

That all said, there is much to recommend Fiennes’ Coriolanus. His present-day setting and trimmed script make it accessible for a modern audience. Stylistically, it is exemplary in setting, cinematography, and editing. Its only downfall comes in a few acting performances and the area of “literary” interpretation, which for the average filmgoer is not an issue.

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