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DFI Film Review : Coriolanus (2011)

Feb 16, 2011

Written by James Rawson, New Media, DFI

Director: Ralph Fiennes

Genre: Drama, History, Thriller

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cos, Vanessa Redgrave

Widespread civil unrest. Riots over food prices. Politicians banished. Who says Shakespeare isn’t relevant?

Set in Rome (though the film was shot in Belgrade with a distinctly Eastern European look to it) Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut tells the story of Caius Martius Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes), Rome’s most prominent general, whose army is fighting fiercely in a war with neighbouring state Volsces. With a passion spurred on by his burning hatred for the Volscian military leader, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), Caius Martius is a great warrior for his country, but he has nothing but disdain for the poor of Rome who are suffering through famine and hardship. Following an important military victory, his ambitious mother Volumnnia (Vanessa Redgrave) sees an opportunity for her son to stand for Senator, though in order to do so he must act a little more diplomatically towards his own people. He tries, but not being a natural politician he is unable to hold his tongue and explodes into a contemptuous public rant, leading to a popular uprising and his banishment from Rome. Leaving his family behind, Coriolanus teams up with former rival Tullus Aufidius and returns to Rome, but this time as the leader of an invading army.

The decision to retain the original Shakespearean verse provides Fiennes with obstacles that would have challenged an experienced filmmaker, never mind a first time director. As Baz Lurhmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” (against which all modern Shakespeare adaptations will be judged, seemingly forever) showed, 17th century dialogue can be extremely effective in a contemporary setting. But Coriolanus is not “Romeo + Juliet”: the story is not known by almost everyone the world over, and the dialogue is nowhere near as accessible.

Fiennes’ film more than rises to the challenge, and no doubt he has made a better film for keeping the dialogue unchanged. The cast’s delivery of the script is, on the whole, superb: Butler has never been better as the fearless Gladiator-esque Aufidius, Ralph Fiennes impresses both behind the camera as well as in front as the hot-tempered, maniacal Coriolanus (a role he has played previously on the stage), and both Jessica Chastain, as the ever concerned wife Virgila, and Brian Cox as the effusive political advisor Menenius, make an impact in smaller roles. Only James Nesbitt, as the manipulative and underhand Sicinius, gives a slightly underwhelming performance.

But there are a few moments in the script where Fiennes simply can’t rely on his actors’ delivery of the dialogue to clearly convey the plot (‘I… converse more with the buttock of the night than with the forehead of the morning’ is just one of the less intelligible lines). In these instances he lets the filmmaking do the storytelling: from grandiose speeches to intimate family scenes the bombastic score, dramatic cinematography, and bold camerawork make that the meaning and direction of every scene clear. This is a director who definitely knows his craft: I was in a cinema full of critics, for most of whom English is not their first language, and heard absolutely no complaints about not understanding the plot.

The final word, however, simply has to go to Vanessa Redgrave. Her portrayal of Volumnia is staggering. As a mother who risks seeing her own son bring down the city that her family has spent hundreds of years building, she brings out her character’s pride, conflict and vulnerability with a subtlety and power that has to be seen to be believed. Truly breathtaking.

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