“CORIOLANUS” My rating: B- (Opening Jan. 20)
122 minutes | MPAA rating: R
The rarely-performed plays of Shakespeare pose a problem for film adaptations. Lacking the familiar plots and Bartlett’s-heavy dialogue of a “Macbeth” or “Hamlet,” these minor works force filmmakers to come up with a creative presentational style if they’re to hook a modern audience.
With that in mind, director/star Ralph Fiennes makes of Shakespeare’s Roman play “Coriolanus” a modern-dress political fable about patriotism, loyalty and class warfare.
It’s quite well acted and if the text itself isn’t terribly compelling, the movie’s semi-documentary visual style and the political parallels Fiennes draws between ancient Rome and our own time engage both the eye and the intellect.
The plot centers on the Roman general Caius Martius (Fiennes), who has defeated the rebel forces of Aufidius (Gerard Butler). For his great victory the Senate renames him Coriolanus and names him Consul of Rome. But before getting the job the newly-named Coriolanus must gain the approval of the citizenry. And that’s no small task, since he’s an aloof patrician who views everyday Romans as worthless rabble. Early in the film we see him turning back starving rioters who have attacked a government warehouse demanding to be fed.
Before he can take office Coriolanus’ political fortunes turn sour. He is exiled from Rome and in disguise travels to the camp of Aufidius, where he offers to fight alongside his former foe against the Romans who have betrayed him.
Filmed in Serbia and Montenegro, this Coriolanus takes a torn-from-the-headlines approach. Major plot developments which in a stage production would be announced through dialogue are here seen live on a cable television news channel.
That “breaking news” approach applies to the rest of the film as well; Fiennes employs handheld cameras to give a “breaking news” feel to the proceedings.
The costuming is utterly familiar: army surplus rumpled khaki for the rebel forces, sleekly tailored uniforms and business suits for the Roman bigwigs.
The performances are uniformly solid. Jessica Chastain (this is her fifth film in a year) doesn’t have much to do as Coriolanus’ missus, but Vanessa Redgrave is very fine as his manipulative mum (there’s just a hint of incest here). Various politicos are nicely played by the likes of James Nesbitt and Brian Cox.
Butler, whose acting chops were in danger of being blunted by one too many lame romantic comedies, brings a fierce intensity to his role as the rebel leader.
And Fiennes, with bald head and various scars, is a highly watchable if not exactly sympathetic protagonist.
Bottom line: A smartly-handled version of a little-seen Shakespeare tragedy. But unlike, say, Branagh’s “Henry V,” it’s more for Bard completists than rank-and-file moviegoers.
| Robert W. Butler