With Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes (as star and director) updates Shakespeare’s tale of war, betrayal and vengeance in ancient Rome to the present day.
The title character is an angry, bald-headed Roman General who is very adept at annihilating enemies but not so good at dealing with people. His successes in battle see him lured into politics but his volatile manner ends up making him an outcast and the enemy of Rome. Banished, he teams up with his nemesis Aufidius (Gerard Butler) and vows revenge on his former countrymen.
Proving Shakespeare’s enduring relevance, this film depicts political machinations, like Senators conspiring to undermine a potential leader and violent images of public rebellion that could have been plucked from the evening news. Although it’s meant to be Rome, the film’s setting is deliberately generic – it was mostly shot in Serbia – so that the story could apply to any European city riven with economic inequality and public insurrection.
Thankfully, despite low-key production values this film, like the best Shakespeare adaptations, looks like a movie rather than a filmed play.
The big hurdle when modernizing Shakespeare is making sure contemporary characters don’t look like pompous gits when speaking in Shakespearean verse. For the most part, the characters in Coriolanus not only sound credible but also infuse their words with great emotion, menace and existential angst. This is not the case, however, when they have people on a TV current affairs show talking in iambic pentameter; these scenes looks like some sort of comedy-sketch parody.
The language works in the modern setting largely because of the excellent performances from the cast. Fiennes is terrific as the banished Roman General and often recalls Brando’s Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, all bald and mysterious and treated as a God by his adoring band of killers. He thrillingly lays bare the forces driving Coriolanus, his bitterness and rage at those who he feels have betrayed him as well as his warrior code of honour. Equally good is Vanessa Redgrave’s as Coriolanus’ flinty, politically-driven Mother.
Coriolanus is an engrossing, hard-edged story of war and politics and one of the year’s best films so far.
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