Friday, February 10, 2012


Alternate Title:  Voldemort Ad Portas

One sentence synopsis: A victorious Roman general is banished by the people and seeks revenge.

Things Havoc liked: It takes a certain kind of madman to do Shakespeare justice. Masked behind tormented psyches and archaic language, actors who attempt Shakespeare, particularly the tragedies, are often unable to get the essence of their characters across unless they can properly channel a certain modulated intensity (it also helps if one is British). Fortunately, with films such as Red Dragon, In Bruges, and Schindler's List behind him, as well as a long history with Shakespeare on the stage, Ralph Fiennes is more than qualified to bring one of Shakespeare's crazy protagonists to life. Here he plays Caius Martius Coriolanus, a general in the Roman army who is brought down by his unwillingness to play demagogue. Fiennes, always at his best when playing a man on the verge of a psychotic episode (see the above films), plays Coriolanus like some kind of enraged demon locked up within a frame of icy professionalism. Rejecting fame and flattery, indifferent to pain and injury, conscious of his own superiority without feeling the need to have it flaunted, he seems almost lost when he doesn't have someone to shoot at. Unlike many of Shakespeare's heroes, Coriolanus doesn't indulge in lengthy soliloquies to explain himself to the audience, and Fiennes gets all this across just through his stare, expression, and the occasional clipped word. It's quite impressive.

This is also Fiennes' directorial debut, and for the occasion, he has surrounded himself with a superb supporting cast. Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox turn in outstanding performances as Coriolanus' mother and friend respectively. Redgrave is a match, intensity-wise for Fiennes himself, speaking and acting with the same ferocious glare to her eyes, such that when she says she'd be perfectly happy for her son to die as long as he dies well, we believe her. Cox, who usually plays a slimy bastard, here plays the only non-slimy politician in Rome, who tries again and again to soften Coriolanus' woeful public image. Smaller parts are still entrusted to other excellent actors, among them James Nesbitt as one of the rabble-rousing Tribunes, and John Kani as the arch-patrician General Cominius.

In keeping with what seems to be a rule nowadays, this movie is shot in modern times, with period language. I'm not usually a huge fan of this method, as it often (Romeo+Juliet) comes across as pretentious and jarring. This time, however, with actors good enough to sell the dialogue, the style is allowed to stand on its own and even update the material with modern takes. Soliloquies and herald messages that would be awkward in person are handled cleverly through talk shows and broadcast news reports. Coriolanus' meltdown happens on the set of a Face the Nation-type political interview show, which adds to the frenzied, almost tabloidish atmosphere of the entire event. Meanwhile the competing armies are a study in contrasts. The Volscians (Rome's enemies) carry eastern-bloc weapons and dress like Cuban guerrilla fighters, while the Romans are in full modern infantry gear, carrying western assault rifles and satellite uplinks. Battle sequences are violent and gritty, and look like something one might see from one of the Balkan wars of the 90s, while the city of Rome itself is half-industrial park, half tenement-housing. Still, a modernized Roman setting is the sort of thing calculated to make me happy, and I particularly appreciated the little touches thrown in here and there (such as Fidelis TV and the Latin headlines on the scrolling news bar).

Things Havoc disliked: The only major actor who doesn't keep up with Fiennes and company is Gerard Butler, who plays Aufidius, enemy of Coriolanus and general of the Volscians. It's not that Butler is bad, but he's just not in the league of people like Fiennes and Redgrave, and moreover his character just isn't as interesting. This isn't helped by the fact that, for some reason, Butler decides to dive deeply into a thick Scottish accent for this role. Why he chose to do this is beyond me, but when the language is as dense and archaic as Shakespeare's, muddling everything up with an accent this thick renders half of his dialogue completely incomprehensible, at least to ignorant American me.

Additionally, the soundtrack in this movie is very sparse, to the point of being nonexistent. There's certainly a time and a place for less-is-more insofar as soundtracks are concerned, but whole sections of this film seem like they forgot to score them, which becomes particularly problematic in scenes where, for stylistic reasons, the sound effects also are cut out. Twice during the film I thought that the theatre's sound system had failed, only to find that there was "symbolism" being done.

Final thoughts:  Coriolanus is not one of Shakespeare's most famous plays, and rivers of ink have been spilled debating just what's wrong with it. It's certainly more straightforward than most of the Gordian Knots that Shakespeare usually tied his characters into, and has a protagonist who says much less, overall, than other Shakespeare protagonists I could mention. The film, cleverly, improves on the sparseness of the play in ways only film can perform, enabling the actors to infuse their dialogue with far more subtle nuance than would be possible on stage. This turns the screenplay's relative sparseness into an asset, as much is implied between each line. Couple that with an alt-history setting that appeals to the romanophile in me (and probably bumps the film's score by half a point or so), and we have a winner here. The material frankly isn't awe-striking enough to turn the movie into a true masterpiece, but as Shakespeare films go (to say nothing of directorial debuts), one really can't ask for anything more than this.

Final Score:  7.5/10

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