Movie Review: Coriolanus

You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate

As reek o’the rotten fens, whose loves I prize

As the dead carcases of unburied men

That do corrupt my air.

I’m going to do my Shakespeare on film marathon one of these days. It’s going to be the greatest thing ever done, rivaling the Bards work itself. It will be epic and humanistic at the same time. Grand and personal. Anyways, this movie will have to be in it because it is the only theatrical version of the play. Coriolanus is a history, probably the least popular of the three genres that Shakes wrote in but it is equally rich ground as the comedies and tragedies. It tells the rise and fall and re-rise and then whatever of a military general who is elevated to the highest level of public office because of his war record and scars but cares little for the people he is supposed to be governing. The dynamic is set up early and often, he’s a proud man but feels he’s above nearly everybody else on the planet including his rival, an insurgency leader who is clearly not the equal of the mighty Coriolanus.

Watching this movie, which transposes the action to a modern-day version of Rome (kinda, it’s got a few minor issues here but the modernization mostly works), I got a strong feeling of deja vu, though I had never even heard of this play before seeing the trailer. It’s all political dealing and manuvering outside of one action scene for the whole first hour. What it felt like was Game of Thrones. The big players are big and bombastic (Fiennes spits a lot, which is gross but fun) but there are also these side characters that plot and scheme to keep the people they don’t like out of power. In this film it’s Brian Cox trying to put Ralph Fiennes into the seat of power and James Nesbit trying to keep him out. It’s a fun dynamic. They both manipulate the populace into thinking one way and then the other, rabble rousing the poor starving people. A lot is made of literally and metaphorically showing Fiennes’ battle scars and there seems to be a custom of going out into the people and asking them to endorse a candidate and it’s fun to see that play out, even if it doesn’t quite make sense with the scope of the film (the 40 or so people don’t quite make for a majority, do they?) So Fiennes rises and falls and is exiled on national tv. That’s fun. You know, Shakespeare is pretty damned good at this whole writing thing. Coriolanus gets mad very quickly and its fun to watch Fiennes bluster at everybody. Then he’s offscreen for five minutes and has gone from bald to scruffy seemingly overnight. Time compression!

Shakespeare has been studied endlessly and his depiction of women probably takes up half of the papers written about him. Here we have Jessica Chastain (of course) playing Coriolanus’ faithful but worried wife and Vanessa Redgrave as his fierce and powerful mother. Chastain is fine, but doesn’t get a whole ton to do. Redgrave, on the other hand, is awesome. You can very clearly see how Coriolanus came from her. Everything he is is because of her. She propels him, emboldens him. Chastises him, defends him, and, ultimately, defeats him. Not with a knife, of course, even Gerard Butler, Mr. 300 himself, couldn’t beat Coriolanus with a knife. No, she beats him with words, first groveling then shaming him and his decisions. She’s brokering for peace between him and his former country but it is only through their personal connection that she gets through to him. There’s gotta be a paper in there somewhere, right?

This is one of those movies that follows the play pretty closely (I assume). No lines of dialogue are spoken that aren’t in the play and anything depicting an invented scene lacks words. This is a convention that I get, I understand, but I don’t really know if I care about it. Are his words that revered that nobody can deign to change them? The Lion King works just fine as an adaption of Hamlet without all of the silly conventions that these filmmakers put upon themselves. It doesn’t hurt the film, I just don’t know if it helps. I wouldn’t want to get rid of the dialogue or remove its olde tyme flavor, because it works pretty well, but don’t feel beholden to some dead guy.

Ok, that sidetrack is over now. Finally, I just want to comment on the shaky cam that Fiennes (wearing his director hat) uses. It feels immediate without making me nauseous, which is good. It doesn’t detract from the few action scenes nor the more intimate moments. It gives great power to Coriolanus’ monologue right after he is banished from Rome. It’s shot in one take but he moves around and addresses the crowd and the camera follows him, not quite sure where he’s going to go next nor what he is going to do when he gets there. Often these adaptations end up feeling very stiff, with the actors struggling to get out the words and the camera not complicating matters with anything beyond kinda boring setups. Fiennes imbues the camera with an immediacy, a modern aesthetic that makes the movie come alive. It’s nothing groundbreaking or unusual, just look at half the action movies and a quarter of the drama films today, but it is nice to see him do something unexpected with Shakes. Take chances, make mistakes. Do whatever you want with his stuff. It worked out for him and I’m glad, but I’m even more glad he tried.

B+.

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5 thoughts on “Movie Review: Coriolanus

  1. Your thoughts on the power and influence of Shakespeare remind me of The Tragedy of Arthur. I love that we get to live in a world with Hamlet AND The Lion King. If I had to choose, it would be Hamlet every time but the thing about adaptations is that they are inherently this paired species, with some other version in the background. That raises different questions. Since we have Hamlet already and Coriolanus what are YOU the filmmaker bringing to the table, right?

    Nice review. I am SO ready for Shakespeare marathon updates. 😉

    1. I love thinking about adaptations. The changes are really the most important elements because they tell you everything about what the filmmaker is trying to do (assuming you’re familiar with the original work). Why would you shift this character that way? You must do it for a reason. It’s fascinating.

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