Coriolanus Review: Ralph Fiennes' Brilliant Directorial Debut

The poetry may be unfamiliar to many but the ideas and themes won't be in this excellent Shakespeare re-working.

rating: 5

(Our review from the Berlin Film Festival re-posted) Forgive my ignorance or lack of cultural sophistication but I actually hadn't heard of Shakespeare's Coriolanus prior to the announcement that a Ralph Fiennes directed adaptation would be screened in competition at Berlin this year. It turns out that this was a terrible omission on my part, as Coriolanus is an especially relevant play when it comes to its themes as well as its basic story: a fact made all the more apparent by Fiennes' sure-footed directorial debut which transports the play to a contemporary setting whilst retaining the 17th century language. Coriolanus is set during a time of famine and hardship for the people of the Roman Empire and, like many of the Bard's works, follows a flawed, tyrannical and ultimately tragic figure in the form of the titular Roman general, played by Fiennes. After fighting a war with his people's enemies, who are lead by Audidius (Gerard Butler), Coriolanus returns to Rome as a hero and is urged to enter politics by his strong-willed patrician mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) as well as his trusted mentor Menenius (Brian Cox). However, a life-long soldier, Coriolanus is not a good speaker and struggles to win the favour of his people. Unlike Colin Firth in The King's Speech however, he refuses to change and become a better public speaker, insisting that he'd sooner be true to his own character and unpopular, as opposed to false and popular. The people rebel and he is soon exiled, only to march on Rome alongside his old enemy some time later in a bid for revenge. Fiennes may have changed the setting of the play in his version of the story - much like Baz Luhrmann's 1996 version of Romeo & Juliet - but all the original themes are left intact. He also retains all the place names meaning the film is ostensibly still set in Rome, although this is not the Rome of our world or even recognisably part of Italy. In making the film this way Fiennes draws attention to just how timeless Shakespeare's stories can be. For instance the forum where Coriolanus must go to appeal for political power is now a market full of citizens and when he loses his temper with them it is now being recorded by 24 hour news as well as on every camera phone. Later his exile happens during a televised political debate. Making the story relatable and relevant isn't something he does merely by enforcing this change of setting though. This is also made possible by the actor's Paul Greengrass-style direction; handheld cameras stripping the film of the formalised, sanitised sheen prevalent in many of the more traditional adaptations. In fact the scenes of urban warfare in Corionlanus are bloody and visceral like those in a straight-up war movie. The other major contributing factor to the film's success - and probably the most important - is that the dialogue is delivered incredibly naturalistically which makes it immediately more understandable. Treating Shakespeare as if it were normal speech makes it far more accessible than when actors take the more stagey thespian route. Particularly good at this is Fiennes who gives a towering performance of malignant rage and of great complexity, reprising a role he performed on stage over ten years ago. Butler is less sensational, but then he is given less to do, whilst Cox and Redgrave shine in their supporting roles too, with the latter being tasked with delivering some the play's most crucial speeches. UK audiences will also appreciate the sight of Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow delivering Shakespearian dialogue in the style of a TV news reader. Coriolanus is a brilliant first film from Ralph Fiennes as a director. At the post-film press conference he suggested that he and screenwriter John Logan would ideally like to follow it up by making Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, which he suggested was likewise ideally suited to translation to film. If he can pull off this trick again with another of the writer's less commonly adapted plays then I'd certainly be excited to see it. Coriolanus is certainly much more entertaining and interesting than Julie Taymor's flamboyant and whimsical adaptation of The Tempest and should find an audience provided people aren't put off by the language. The poetry may be unfamiliar to many but the ideas and themes won't be. Coriolanus is released in UK cinemas today.
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, GamesIndustry.biz and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.