27 January 2012


I don't exactly rate Ralph Fiennes as one of the greatest actors in the world, and I find the measure of his best roles are the ones where he least reminds me of Leonard Rossiter. But he does make interesting projects, and ahead of his hobo Voldemort reprisal as Hades in Wrath of the Titans, he's come out with his directorial debut, Coriolanus, updating a less celebrated Shakespeare play to contemporary eastern Europe- "a place calling itself Rome."

Fiennes plays Caius Martius, a fierce and decorated soldier who is loathed by the people for his infractions of civil liberties and his general lack of the common touch. After a victory against rebels from Antium, and his hated rival, Aufidius, he returns to Rome triumphant, and is coralled into a political career by his mother. But his campaign for the esteemed role of Consul goes disastrously wrong, to the point where Martius is banished from his own country.

There's more to the plot than that, but I found that the real edge of Coriolanus, aside from the brutal intelligence that it affects, overall, was in not knowing how it was going to unfold. Hamlet and Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet are pretty much spoiler-proof- those plots, by the most celebrated writer of all time, are his best known. And once Fiennes' version gets going, it's completely riveting, even though it's not so much updated, as transplanted into the modern media culture, dialogue and all.

In some ways, it feels like a stage production writ large. Theatrical versions of Shakespeare's works haven't always preserved the setting, as much as the prose, but the film still feels cinematic, by virtue of the incredible cinematography from Barry Ackroyd, and Fiennes' surprisingly accomplished direction. This allows the cast to let loose a menagerie of big, stagey performances that are largely fantastic. Fiennes never seems overstretched by his double duty on the film, even if the shaved head and sneering superiority of his character is once again a little reminiscent of Lord Voldemort. Martius remains a complicated character, not above villainy, but always motivated by his dangerous pride in a way that makes him compulsively watchable.

Both Gerard Butler and James Nesbitt are surprisingly good, with Butler absolutely nailing his delivery of the Shakespearean dialogue. Maybe this is his calling, after all. Brian Cox and Jessica Chastain are reliably supportive, although I think Chastain's character is ultimately underserved, but there can be no doubt that the most valuable player is Vanessa Redgrave, as Martius' proud and domineering mother. Her performance is above and beyond; a shockingly powerful turn which is enough to make you quake and tremble. I'm really astonished she hasn't had more awards recognition, but the fact that her talent is all up there on screen is tribut enough, without the arbitrary gongs.

Coriolanus isn't what the trailer makes out- it's not so much a Shakespearean action movie, a la Arnie's Hamlet in Last Action Hero, but a timely rumination on politics, corruption and war. John Logan's script cleverly and faithfully updates Shakespeare's text, and the production value elevates it above what could easily have been a personal vanity project for Fiennes. I think it's a brave, clever experiment, not too fixated on commercial crossover, and successful by the virtue of its terrific cast, and Vanessa Redgrave's astonishing performance.

Coriolanus is now showing in selected cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Coriolanus, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

No comments: