Coriolanus is a powerful present-day adaptation of Shakespeare
Actor and first-time director Ralph Fiennes finds a perfect setting for one of Shakespeare’s most battle-heavy plays in the modern day. The integral text, as adapted by John Logan (Gladiator), may be hard to follow for some audiences, but they will nevertheless be drawn in by the intensity of the proceedings and strong acting from a perfectly selected cast.
Set in “A place that calls itself Rome”, Coriolanus [+see also:
film profile] – screening in Competition at the Berlinale – tells the story of Caius Martius (Fiennes), a fierce warrior so hard to defeat that he believes he is the only man worthy of being the Consul of Rome. No wonder – for his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), family and the state are one and the same. A powerful figure who thinks in military terms, she tells Martius’ wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) that she should be happier when her husband is fighting battles than when he’s caressing her.
Martius returns triumphant from a decisive battle against the neighbouring Volscians, led by Martius’ nemesis Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). After conquering the city of Corioles, which earns him the name Coriolanus, now is the perfect moment for Martius to enter politics, nudged by Volumnia and his mentor Menenius (Brian Cox).
Martius easily wins support in the Senate, despite opposition from tribunes Brutus (Paul Jesson) and Sicinius (James Nesbitt), but needs to be accepted by the plebeians, for whom he has nothing but disdain. The people are protesting because the state is withholding stores of grain and Martius, fully inept at political sweet-talk, heavily insults them. Brutus and Sicinius amplify the crowd’s wrath, causing Martius to be banished from Rome.
Angry and vengeful, Martius joins the Volscians and they threaten to attack Rome. Desperately afraid of Martius and Afidius joining forces, the Senate first sends Menenius then Martius’ family to plead for peace. But this is a Shakespeare tragedy, and the outcome can hardly be optimistic.
Filmed in Belgrade and on the Montenegrin coast, the film shows Shakespeare’s timeless significance and understanding of the world. Fieness has chosen and used the material well, for the setting could be any place from the US to Russia today. This is a daring task for a feature debut and Fiennes directs bravely, using close-ups to heighten tension in moments of conflict, often panning around actors.
The performances are adequately intense. There is a strong interplay between Fiennes and Butler (with homosexual overtones as evident as in the original play) and Redgrave and Cox expertly deliver some highly emotional lines.
DoP Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker) makes excellent use of the Cinemascope format, capturing grey, run-down Belgrade buildings as a backdrop to social unrest.
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