Coriolanus is one of William Shakespeare's more obscure plays, and it's based on a relatively obscure pre-Empire Roman general who lived and died in the fifth century B.C. (maybe), so even though I took four years of Latin in high school and have read plenty of Shakespeare, I went in to Ralph Fiennes' modern adaptation of it with little idea of what to expect.
I found doing so to be plenty refreshing. Other than the dialogue itself, there were few of the conventional trappings that come with Shakespeare, and, without much prior knowledge of the plot, I was actually able to be surprised. In short, as events unfolded, I was saved, by default, from back-and-forth comparisons between the source material and Fiennes' interpretation of it.
And, you know, it was kind of a relief.
That might make me unqualified to formulate a review that would capture what an avid Shakespeare reader needs to know about this film, but it makes me plenty capable of evaluating it on its own merits -- something which most movies deserve anyway.
Fiennes, well known to movie fans for his work in front of the camera over the past two decades-plus, stepped behind it for the first time here, directing for the first time. Worry not, though, Fiennes fans. He also stars as the titular character, a fierce Roman general whose contempt for the rival Volscians, a neighboring state that threatens Rome's power, is only matched by his distaste for the common people.
Bloody victory after bloody victory means that Coriolanus can sidestep currying favor with the common man altogether and continue a meteoric political rise that is just beginning as the movie opens, and, after defeating hated rival Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) in battle, he mounts a successful campaign in the Senate to become consul. Coriolanus' military prowess and rapid ascent make him a threat to his political rivals, and his unwillingness to supplicate himself in front of the people provides those rivals with the excuse they need to exile him from Rome.
Prideful as he is, Coriolanus does the previously unthinkable and aligns himself with Aufidius against Rome, and the pair, with their formidable military might, set off on a revenge tour that ultimately ends poorly for both the hero at the center of the tale and for the city that cast him out.
If you're imagining Fiennes and Butler doing all this with swords, bronze armor and tunics, you might want to set aside those expectations before you actually go see this film. As I hinted at in the beginning, this is a modern adaptation of Coriolanus akin to Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, though this has more of a V for Vendetta/Children of Men aesthetic than the sun-splashed, L.A. gangster feel you get in Romeo + Juliet.
Anyway, it's not exactly original to take Shakespeare's work and situate it in modern times at this point, but then it wasn't really when Luhrmann did it either, and it can be plenty effective if done properly. In this case, I think seeing him smeared in blood and dodging gunfire actually serves to better elucidate the brutal work done by Coriolanus in the name of Rome and make his motivations seem all the more unhinged than they would be were he running around gutting people with a shortsword. Why does he put up with the rat-tat-tat of sniper fire -- put himself in the line of fire again and again -- when he has only sneering disdain for the Roman people? I'm not sure there's ever a satisfying answer put forth, but his family, particularly his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), seem to be his only source of motivation.
Tunics or tanks, it's the interpretations of Shakespeare's archetypal characters that really matter. I was disappointed with Butler, who never made Aufidius feel like a genuine rival (and equal) to Coriolanus, and I was sad to see Jessica Chastain, who played Coriolanus' wife Virgilia, underutilized, though that's more about my affinity for Chastain as an actress than any problem with the construction of the movie (indeed, it seems purposeful that she floats about in the background most of the time). The masterful Redgrave and the magnetically intense Fiennes, along with Brian Cox's turn as compromise-brokering Senator Menenius, more than made up for those flaws.
There are many worse cinematic Shakespeare adaptations out there ... and few I've seen that are better. Fiennes was ambitious in choosing this as his directorial debut. Now that I've seen what he can do in that role, I'm anxious to see what's he bites off next.