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Director-star Ralph Fiennes described his movie Coriolanus as shockingly violent, a statement that rings true only by comparison with most other Shakespeare adaptations; Julie Taymor's Titus now holds top honors for grue when it comes to the Bard of Blood. With little in the way of sentimental soliloquizing to temper its raging emotions, Coriolanus' story of military mindsets and political vengeance has only grown more relevant through the centuries. Fiennes' direction and acting impressed critics and audiences, but his well-reviewed show was perhaps too much of an action film to attract awards.
John Logan's screen adaptation updates Shakespeare's play to the present, in "a place that calls itself Rome." The country fights frequent wars while miserable conditions in its own streets lead to open dissent and food riots. The wealthy class nevertheless puts its faith in soldier Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes), a near fanatic veteran with the knack of leading troops to victory no matter what the odds. The neighboring country Volscia attacks, but Caius Martius repels the invasion with a handpicked force, even fighting hand-to-hand with his bitter enemy, the Volscian champion Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) before the Volsicans withdraw. Political handler Menenius (Brian Cox) hurriedly nominates the victorious Martius to become the all-powerful Consul of Rome, an idea enthusiastically welcomed by the Senate and Martius' commander, General Cominius (John Kani). Martius' fearsomely ambitious mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) pushes him to accept the honor of a new name -- Coriolanus -- symbolizing his supreme authority.
The celebrations are premature. Martius' weak point is his terrible reputation with the common people of Rome, who he openly despises for not serving their country in war. Martius is absorbed in his personal sense of honor; he's blunt and cruel but brutally honest, and not even very emotional with his wife Virgilia and son (Jessica Chastain & Harry Fenn). Tribunes Brutus and Sicinius (Paul Jesson & James Nesbitt) find it easy to bait Martius with booing crowds; he promises his mother to 'play politics' but ends up publicly expressing his contempt for the common citizenry. The scandal sees Martius banished from Rome.
Abandoning everything, including his family, Martius walks alone to Volscia and presents himself to his own sworn enemy, Aufidius. He now hates his homeland so deeply that he offers his throat so that Aufidius can cut it -- but he also offers to lead Volscia in a swift conquest of Rome, to destroy the land that betrayed his years of faithful service.
The rousing Coriolanus has the potential to lead action movie fans to the great works of William Shakespeare, as its extreme characters are quite a bit like the fanatic superheroes of comic books -- but better connected to the psychology and politics of the real world. Audiences accustomed to sorting out the "worlds" of Tolkien and Rowling will have little difficulty deciphering the poetic English, a task for which subtitles were invented. Updating Shakespeare to the present but retaining the original spoken text has plenty of successful precedents, notably Richard Loncraine's excellent 1995 Richard III with Ian McKellen -- a tale of a less ambiguous warrior-politician.
Forget delicate scenes or internalized thoughts -- it's thrilling to watch the cast of Coriolanus plot and scheme while Ralph Fiennes rages. Matching him at top volume is Vanessa Redgrave, who gets a role with some real bite. I can't think of a warrior-mother as fearsome; if her son took to slaughtering babies, Volumnia would find reason to celebrate. Fiennes shows restraint with his own performance while orchestrating those around him to hit just the right tone to make the stylized situations function. Brian Cox is superb as the kingmaker who can't get Martius to assume a public relations pose to pacify the mob. The one man that fully understands and trusts Martius is his sworn enemy Aufidius. Gerard Butler is quite good as Martius' true soulmate -- who has his own tolerance limit when it comes to broken promises.
Coriolanus is fascinating because its critique of power politics in a warrior culture is essentially fair. Caius Martius subscribes wholeheartedly to the warrior cult that believes that only military service makes one a true citizen. Who better loves their country than one who puts his life on the line for it? We believe that he would make a fair and dependable defense Consul, but a terrible civilian leader. He judges others as he would judge himself -- in his view the complaining mobs don't deserve respect or better treatment. The proof comes when Martius is banished. His love for his country is really a love for himself, and when he feels betrayed the warrior in him must strike back. He's pure and honest, yet also an egoist who refuses to see the rights of citizens that don't make conquest and blind obedience their first priority.
Ralph Fiennes filmed Coriolanus in Serbia and Montenegro, staging some acceptable battle scenes and finding excellent backgrounds for the crumbling Roman countryside and the less advanced Volscian state. A lonely stretch of highway serves as an impressive fighting arena for the finale. This fantasy "Rome" is effectively sketched with just a few details. The country has its own cable news outlets with biased reportage and swank neighborhoods where live celebrity heroes and politicians. The gala military greeting for the returning victor is flashy without assuming a fascistic style.
The film's biggest confrontation is between Martius and his own family, who must beg him not to destroy his homeland. At this point even Shakespeare must put his leading character through a rough gear-change to bring the play to a satisfactory conclusion. It's Vanessa Redgrave's scene through and through -- Fiennes' character-altering response to her stirring oratory can't help but diminish Martius. 1
The redoubtable Ms. Redgrave took some critics' acting awards for Coriolanus. Jessica Chastain ended up getting more attention, not necessarily for her fairly secondary role in this show, but for a smashing breakthrough year that saw her starring in three more major releases: The Help, The Debt and The Tree of Life.
Anchor Bay and The Weinstein Company's Blu-ray - DVD combo of Coriolanus presents Ralph Fiennes' powerful drama in a clean, colorful HD transfer.
The director offers a feature commentary and also appears in an efficient EPK-style making-of featurette. Coriolanus is admittedly a difficult show to promote to the mainstream, but I still blanch at the critic quote used on the package: "William Shakespeare's Rambo." Had I read that I would have stayed far away from this intriguing winner of a movie.
Note: Thanks to correspondent Jim Cobb for an important correction.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Coriolanus Blu-ray rates:
1. We can't help thinking that Laurence Olivier might have had Shakespeare's Coriolanus in mind when he played Marcus Licinius Crassus for Kirk Douglas and Stanley Kubrick in Spartacus ... Crassus is the corrupt opposite of Martius, a total opportunist who believes from the start that he personifies Rome. Would Martius turn into the same kind of monster, as soon as he met resistance as Consul?
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T'was Ever Thus.