Re-contextualizing the work of William Shakespeare is an understandably enticing concept for ambitious directors of varying mediums. In the realm of film, sadly, most directors aren’t Orson Welles. The majority of filmed Shakespeare modernizations, whether set in the world of a 1930s screwball comedy or a posh American high school (and that’s not counting whatever dimension Julie Taymor’s ostentatiously insane adaptations of Titus and The Tempest are meant to occupy) simply confirm that the play, as they say, is the thing, and good actors and a bare set will always trump elaborate conceits and gimmicks. There are exceptions to this rule, such as Roman Polanski’s Macbeth or Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet, but they are quite the exception.
Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus is another bracing refutation of that rule. The conceit doesn’t sound promising, as Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan have set the play in a bombed-out ghettoized hellhole that’s clearly suggestive of footage we’ve seen of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as a variety of barely acknowledged third-world atrocities. The film has been shot in the jittery vérité fashion that’s characteristic of many of the last decade’s war films, with an accompanying color scheme of predominant gray that’s more than occasionally punctuated by long graphic spurts of arterial spray. Fiennes has turned Coriolanus into a contemporary action war film, a decision that theoretically sounds deafening and literal-minded.
Yet it works because Fiennes’s chosen setting isn’t competing with the play, which is surprisingly complemented by the addition of contemporary-minded brutality. Thematically, Fiennes and Logan’s decision makes sense of General Martius (Fiennes), christened Coriolanus after winning a brutal battle in a campaign against a neighboring tribe, a notoriously difficult role for an actor to inhabit. Coriolanus, as written, is a purposeful near cipher—an animal of war eventually undone by the self-servicing machinations of the consul. In traditional performances of the play, you mostly see only Coriolanus’s active discomfort with the pomp and circumstance of the government; here, you see him ironically at spiritual peace as he cuts a solider open with a serrated blade.
Fiennes isn’t interested in much subtlety, as his Coriolanus is a blunt criticism of the institute of government, which is familiarly characterized as being comprised of people of privilege untouched by the warfare they see as a necessary show (though this theme was always in the play, Fiennes and Logan have merely updated it). But the filmmakers, thankfully understanding that their concept overwhelmingly speaks for itself, manage to avoid pummeling the symbols and ironies. The world of this film is established succinctly in the first few minutes, thus allowing Fiennes to devote surprising attention to the uniformly impressive performances, particularly Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia and Brian Cox as Menenius.
But Fiennes the actor is the predominant reason to see the movie. With his shaved dome, he plays Coriolanus as an ambulatory bullet, and he finds a startling center in the role. Coriolanus is eventually undone because essentially he’s unable to socially tap dance for the public in the manner befitting a member of the consul; he’s almost chemically incapable of obscuring his active contempt for a public he views as easily herded sheep (a view Shakespeare would have appeared to share). This refusal to pander embodies a strange mixture of naiveté, pride, and foolishness: Coriolanus believes he should be rewarded for talent and talent alone. And it’s that interpretation that gives this Coriolanus, one of the best modernizations of the Bard’s work put on film, a discomfiting power. It offers us a monster and presents him as both victim and illustration of idealism as a crime punishable by annihilation.
Coriolanus is a contemporary war film of gritty grays filmed with jittery camera movements, and this transfer renders the image with an eye-pleasing clarity. Visual information is never unintentionally out of focus (which can be a problem with films adopting this jumpy, bleached-out aesthetic) and the blood reds and occasional green are rich and striking. The sound is the thing here, as you may expect from a high-adrenaline war film, and it's densely textured and well mixed; the quieter moments aren't overshadowed by the bombastic set pieces. This is a surprisingly attentive presentation of a good but little-seen film.
While Ralph Fiennes occasionally offers a nugget or two that pertain to his process of pruning and adapting the original play, his commentary is a huge disappointment that relies far too much on rote narration of what we're already seeing on the screen. One could reasonably hope, considering that Fiennes has professionally lived with this role in various incarnations in the theater for over a decade, that the director/actor would offer a more substantial commentary. The making-of featurette offers the puffery that's characteristic of indifferently made promo pieces.
This Coriolanus is a savage action movie that somehow manages to preserve the heart of the Bard's work while reducing his words to devastating shards.