MOVIE REVIEW: Coriolanus

Coriolanus

Film: Coriolanus
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler
Directed by: Ralph Fiennes

A challenging, hardened film, Coriolanus marks the directorial debut of actor Ralph Fiennes. It is an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays about a Roman general forced from power who swears vengeance on those who cast him out of his home state. It’s updated to the present day but retains the original dialogue, making for an intriguing if demanding film.

General Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes) is a celebrated war hero, revered for his crusading leadership of the Roman army and his exploits abroad. Following another successful campaign, he returns to Rome to be decorated, is renamed Coriolanus, and urged to become consul by trusted Patrician senator Menenius (Brian Cox) and his steely, overbearing mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave). However, his lack of empathy with the embittered, disenfranchised people leads to his political enemies having him cast out of Rome, whereupon he joins forces with sworn enemy Aufidius (Gerard Butler) and pledges to avenge his downfall.

There’s a disturbing lack of symmetry to this film that prevents it from being truly great, though it remains a fine piece of work. It seems, particularly with the use of the original dialogue, eternally detached from its latter day setting. For all that it exposes the fickle pursuit of power as a universal and eternal theme, there’s a kind of detachment that hangs over the movie, making it seem as though the characters never quite connect with their surroundings. The battle scenes are as violent and grittily contemporary as one could hope for, particularly given their being filmed in the Balkans, but away from the battlefield the film seems to lose itself in rhetoric in the grey, decaying palaces of an unusually dejected Rome. This is in keeping with the titular character’s apparent unease in the political minefield of his homeland, as the character seems ever harrowingly at odds with the suited war games and chambers that surround him. Rome is presented as a Machiavellian den of fickleness and deceit, far from the pinnacle of majesty and decadence that one tends to associate with it, and the lofty speech of its denizens makes them seem obliviously out of touch with the harsh squalor outside.

The war scenes are very effective, and the film suffers for their brevity. The opening battle evokes vivid memories of distressing scenes that littered the news during the 90s – Balkan cities built to endure, razed to the ground by artillery and gunfire and their people scattered, leaderless, lost. In scenes like this, with Fiennes’ arresting rally call of “Make you a sword of me?” leading the charge, Coriolanus is powerful and gripping, offering a heart-rending and mesmeric take on the well-trodden annals of cinematic violence. Yet, it does this from a profoundly human perspective, with difficult scenes depicting the anonymous suffering of those caught in the crossfire.

The story’s fixation on the celebration of power and sacrifice is its most fascinating attribute. All around him, politicians, family members, even enemies, unite to hail the general’s victories and triumphs. Redgrave’s Volumnia is particularly fanatical in this regard, speaking of her son as though he were an advantageous tool in an endless game of chance, with something of a disturbing obsession with his wounds and scars. Such is the complexity of the play, but onscreen it makes for particularly harrowing viewing. The manner in which the general is elevated then dismissed is grim to watch. Fiennes plays him with a cold yet compelling edge – you never quite warm to the man, but learn to understand and even applaud his actions.

Coriolanus stops short of being the visceral, searing adaptation it could have been, but nonetheless stands firm as an austere and thought-provoking debut for Fiennes. The performances are uniformly magnificent and its harsh evocation of corruption and betrayal leaves a very fixed mark. Its themes are familiar and relevant but it fails to really submerge and engross its audience in the magisterial subject matter. As a result, it is stirring and stimulating, but ultimately somewhat unsatisfying.

Review written by: Grace Duffy (Follow her on Twitter)

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the founder of Under The Gun Review. He loves writing about music and movies almost as much as he loves his two fat cats. He's also the co-founder of Antique Records and the Marketing Coordinator for Haulix. You should probably follow him on Twitter.

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