Not everyone can do what Kenneth Branagh did and take one of William Shakespeare’s greatest works and turn it into a four hour plus masterpiece in his version of Hamlet. That is perhaps the definitive cinematic take on that particular work of the Bard, of course, and sometimes trying to adapt his work leaves it less than when it was in its original form. Not true for Coriolanus, one of his lesser works, which has gotten a bit better with a modern update in a passion project from Ralph Fiennes.
Fiennes plays the title character, a war hero pushed into politics when he clearly isn’t a fan of them. He’s not a fan of the people, either, and when his views go public when he’s made a member of the Senate he’s banished from the Republic after causing a riot. Fleeing the country, he wanders into the army of his biggest rival: Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), after everyone (including his family) outmaneuvers him politically. Shall he betray the country that has banished him?
Fiennes, who makes his directorial debut in the film, certainly chose an inauspicious debut in terms of material. “Coriolanus” is a minor work, nothing more, and certainly not the lead role that actors grow up wanting to play. Hamlet and King Lear are perhaps the two roles every actor would want to play, Macbeth another standout as well, but Coriolanus isn’t the highest profile and perhaps one of the few Shakespeare lead roles that isn’t extremely coveted. So it’s interesting to see Fiennes take on the subject and make it a modern war story about a general as opposed to keeping it in ancient Roman times.
Keeping Shakespeare’s words, but updating the setting, this is a unique way at adapting the work. It takes a lot to use Shakespeare’s dialogue, which can be a bit clunky at times for the modern actor, and merely change the setting. Fiennes has crafted his version of Coriolanus as more of an action thriller than perhaps he even intended; this is a film about men of action with several signature action set pieces in both the opening and final acts. In many ways it’s fashioned as a war film but with Shakespearean dialogue.
Fiennes the actor is his usual capable self, bringing out as good a performance as you can with one of Shakespeare’s lesser written characters, but the one thing he’s done as director is surround himself with a capable cast. Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave and Jessica Chastain aren’t given much time or in depth characters to work with but elevate the material with capable performances. The one surprise is Gerard Butler; he holds his own with Fiennes on screen fairly easily. He may have the looks of a leading man for romantic comedies but roughed up, as a rebel leader and general man of violence, he provides a nice counterweight to Fiennes.
Coriolanus is a better film than play but that isn’t saying all that much. There’s a reason why the phrase “lesser Shakespeare” exists, unfortunately, and a good film out of a decent play isn’t a bad thing. They all can’t be Hamlet for a reason.
There’s a generic Making Of piece as well as a commentary track from Ralph Fiennes.
Coriolanus is a pleasant surprise of a film, given the source material, and a good first effort from its director.
Anchor Bay presents Coriolanus. Directed by Ralph Fiennes. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain. Written by John Logan based off “Coriolanus” by William Shakespeare. Running time: 124 minutes. Rated R. Released: May 29, 2012. Available at Amazon.com.
Tags: Brian Cox, Gerard Butler, Jessica Chastain, Ralph Fiennes, The Weinstein Company