Thursday, 26 January 2012

Review: Coriolanus

Coriolanus is Oscar nominated actor Ralph Fiennes' first stab at directing. He has chosen to make and star in a modernised version of the Shakespeare play 'Coriolanus', which centres on a Roman General named Caius Martius; he is a formidable soldier who is given the title 'Coriolanus' after laying successful siege to the Volscian city of Corioles. He is convinced to run for consul by his fame hungry mother Volumnia, and at first he is successful - but the scheming of other politicians, as well as his own sentiments regarding popular democratic rule, turn the mob against him. He is banished from Rome, eventually joining up with the Volscians in order to wreak revenge on the city that exiled him.

While Coriolanus has been given a modern setting (the city is still referred to as Rome, but in fact the film was shot in Belgrade, Serbia) as little as possible appears to have been changed from the original play. Of course everyone is dressed in modern clothing, and there are guns (lots of guns), but the costumes and sets are very sparse, as if every effort has been made to pare the film down; it has the definite ring of a modernised, minimalist theatre production of Shakespeare brought to the screen, rather than an actual translation of the play into film.

The dialogue is gold, as of course it would be, what with Shakespeare being the scriptwriter. As with all Shakespearian productions it's the performances that are the most scrutinised. Some of the bit part actors are clearly not comfortable with the Shakespearean language (a couple of seem to think they're in a school play), but that is made up for by the main performances. As usual, Vanessa Redgrave (as Volumnia) acts everybody else off the screen; Jessica Chastain (who was recently nominated for an Oscar for her role in The Help) does a pretty average job with Virgilia, the wife of Coriolanus. Gerard Butler (as Coriolanus' arch enemy Aufidius) spouts off his lines eloquently in his gravelly Scotch accent (he certainly wouldn't be miscast as MacBeth) although the best of the male supporting actors is almost certainly Brian Cox as Menenius.

Ralph Fiennes himself is certainly intense, but he does have a tendency to go a little bit over the top. Having previously played Coriolanus onstage (at the London Almeida Theatre in 2000) it seems likely that he is carrying over much of that performance to the screen, perhaps forgetting along the way that in a film you don't always have to yell and gesticulate wildly during emotional scenes to get your point across to the cheap seats. It may have been a mistake to give Coriolanus a shaved head as well; it's certainly striking and cinematic, but it smacks a little bit too much of his recent (and possibly most famous) role, Lord Voldemort, who was also as bald as an egg.

Although Coriolanus is probably an extremely good play, Fiennes has not translated it particularly well to the screen; the only scenes in which I found myself truly interested where the ones in which Vanessa Redgrave took control and showed off what over fifty years in the industry (plus being Michael Redgrave's daughter) can do. The trick with translating a play to film is to do something new with it, something that could only be done through the medium of film. Fair enough, you couldn't have a violent pitched gun battle onstage, and Fiennes and Butler probably couldn't jump through a glass window, but these are quite fleeting scenes and don't leave a very lasting impression (plus film can provide so much more than just cheap action sequences).

Coriolanus is a pretty good watch, but I wouldn't want to see it more than once. It's worth it for Redgrave's performance alone, but other than that there is nothing particularly remarkable about it. Fiennes seems to have got a taste for directing however; his new one The Invisible Woman, which tells the story of Charles Dickens' secret mistress, is coming out next year. Perhaps he'll make a more interesting job of it when he isn't hampered by the shadow of Shakespeare.

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