CORIOLANUS (Ralph Fiennes, 2011)

A reciprocation of inflexibility between the common people—a mob of plebeians—and Rome’s scornful military titan, Coriolanus, results in the latter’s downfall following his pursuit of a twisting course that finds him allying himself with Rome’s enemy to wreak vengeance against Rome for turning against him and banishing him: this is the overall movement of William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, a difficult play that John Logan has adapted, and pruned, to accommodate first-time director Ralph Fiennes’ updating it from ancient times to the media-swooning present in a politically backstabbing urban state.

Fiennes, a former Hamlet who had first played Coriolanus on stage about a decade ago, cast himself in the lead with moderately effective results. (Fiennes’ best film acting, in what remains his best film, is as disturbed Dennis Cleg in David Cronenberg’s brilliant 2002 Spider.) Nevertheless, his updating of the play is no stunt. In an interview with Time Out Fiennes has explained: “[The play is] contemporary in lots of ways, about politics and war. All the shit going down in the play—people dissatisfied, authoritarian leaders, political manipulation and politicking—this is the world we live in. . . . If you strip away the difficult passages, you’re left with a dynamic, visceral tragedy. It doesn’t take any prisoners. It has no lyricism. I like that. I’m attracted to that toughness.”

Indeed, Fiennes has made a film that is bereft of any lyricism. His Coriolanus unfolds as correlative to a series of blows: rough brief shots, including verbal sparring and brutal combat, all recorded by aggressive handheld cameras. Barry Ackroyd’s superlative color cinematography is cold, merciless, stony/metallic.

A warrior since the age of 16, Coriolanus considers little and especially lacks political deftness; he is as much machine as human being. In part this is by design—his mother’s; although he is constantly rebelling against her influence, he duplicates her fierceness and implacability. Vanessa Redgrave, in an unusual role for her, is magnificent. She won the best supporting actress British Independent Film Award and was also the choice of the San Francisco critics.

Fiennes has made a ferocious film. If it somewhat peters out toward the end, Shakespeare here is also somewhat to  blame. The same thing happens with the play. One person’s “tragic inevitability,” you know, is another person’s “predictability.”

Coriolanus is from the United Kingdom.

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