When people think of Shakespeare, they usually think of Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet or Macbeth. Coriolanus is not exactly a well-known play, but with any luck Ralph Fiennes’ modern update on it will help bring it to more people’s attention. Granted, it isn’t as good as Hamlet, but then there’s very little that is. At the end of the day, there’s only so far wrong you can go when you’re dealing with the Bard.
In a place calling itself Rome, Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes) is a brilliant general who is awarded the name Coriolanus after defeating his enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), and capturing the city of Corioles. When he tries to run for consul, however, his undisguised contempt for the common people causes him to be banished from the city, whereupon he seeks out Aufidius in an attempt to form an alliance and take his revenge on Rome.
Filmed in Bosnia in part due to budgetary reasons, Coriolanus demonstrates brilliantly how well Shakespeare can be adapted to a modern context, with the setting allowing for sharp commentary on the political situation in the Balkans. As the innumerable modern revisions of Shakespeare have shown, it is astonishing how universal the themes the Bard tackled are, and Coriolanus is no exception: the turbulent politics and the conflict between the aristocracy and commoners of Republican Rome translate extremely well to the modern setting, and there are more than a few echoes of the Occupy movement in the plebeians’ criticisms of the patricians.
Ralph Fiennes has proved time and again that he is a very talented actor, especially where Shakespeare is concerned, and this film, his directorial debut, shows that he’s quite capable of running the whole show as well. Coriolanus‘ dialogue heavy scenes, which naturally form the bulk of the action, are all very good; and while the battle sequences are a little lacking, there are plenty of directors who have made their names on action movies who don’t do them as well as Fiennes (Michael Bay springs immediately to mind).
Gerard Leonidas Butler seems like an odd choice for Coriolanus, but he plays the part surprisingly well, and he certainly knows what to do in an action sequence. It’s probably a case of working with what you’re given; 300 wasn’t exactly a nuanced script which required any real interpretation or skill from the actors, but Shakespeare certainly is, and he handles it extremely well.
The play, one of Shakespeare’s longest, has been edited down considerably to fit into a two hour run time, but the resulting increase in pace fits the modern setting very well. While I do wish it had been longer so the characters and their motivations could have been explored more, there’s never a feeling that material has been left on the cutting room floor. Coriolanus is an extremely refreshing film; not a stately Roman play, but a raw, fierce, exhilarating take on one of the Bard’s least known works.