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Review: Coriolanus (2012)

Coriolanus (2012)

Directed by: Ralph Fiennes

Premise: An adaptation of the play by William Shakespeare. Set in Rome during a time of political violence and social strife, military leader Caius Martius Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes) leads a battle that repels the army of Volci, led by Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). When Coriolanus returns to Rome triumphant he is to be named consul of the Senate but political machinations lead the public to turn on Coriolanus and he joins the Volcian army in the fight against his own country.

What Works: Coriolanus is a bold adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s lesser known works. One of the challenges of adapting a very old piece of literature into a contemporary film is finding ways of making the material relevant for a modern audience. Overcoming this obstacle can be difficult because adaptations generally attempt to preserve the spirit and intent of the text and often times those things are closely related to the style and setting of the original story. Director and star Ralph Fiennes has employed a similar approach as the one used by Baz Luhrman in the 1996 version of Romeo + Juliet in that the original characters, plot, and dialogue are left intact but the story is set in a contemporary environment with modern clothes, buildings, and technology and the visual style is consistent with contemporary filmmaking techniques. Just as Baz Luhrman’s take on Romeo and Juliet was made for a youth culture that had grown up on MTV, Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus was made for an audience that is familiar with contemporary war films like Black Hawk Down and Blood Diamond. But the modern take on this play is more than just a novelty; this new version of Coriolanus makes the story relevant for a 2012 audience and its visuals include imagery that invokes news footage of social unrest such as Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party movement, and the Arab Spring. That’s not to say that the filmmakers are trying to make a deliberate analogy between any specific political movement and the characters and events in this film, but they are invoking them as a way for the audience to make sense of the story and are using the story to comment broadly on contemporary life. The film’s execution of this is very good and even though the characters still speak in Shakespeare’s 15th century dialect the visuals and the performances are enough for viewers to follow the story. Ralph Fiennes plays the title character and it is the kind of larger than life role that Fiennes does well. Over the years he has played a number of villainous characters, such as Francis Dolarhyde in Red Dragon and Voldemort in the Harry Potter films. He brings similar intensity to this role but he also exudes intelligence and even a degree of vulnerability that makes him very watchable and his Coriolanus, both as a character and as a film, is more interesting than other more traditional adaptations of Shakespeare’s work. 

What Doesn’t: The weakness of Coriolanus is in its ending. This is partly due to flaws in the source material as the play comes to an abrupt conclusion. The film sets up the audience for a major confrontation between the Romans and the Volcian army but it never delivers on that. This is a disappointment especially given the momentum of the film up to that point. The ending of the picture is appropriate in that it reinforces the point that the original text tries to make about egotism and self-sacrifice but viewers who come to the film looking for the appeals of an action picture may find the conclusion unsatisfying.

DVD extras: Commentary track and a featurette. The Coriolanus DVD ranges widely in its picture quality. Most of the film looks fantastic but some of the night scenes are excessively grainy.

Bottom Line: Ralph Fiennes’ adaptation of Coriolanus is an exceptional piece of film. It may be flawed in that it does not entirely fulfill the expectations of a contemporary action audience but it is a smart and well-made picture that provocatively connects the politics of the original text with current events.

Episode: #402 (August 26, 2012)