If you asked most Shakespeare fans to name the Bard’s plays, it would be a rare occurrence for someone to name Coriolanus first. It’s arguably one of his lesser-known plays, written around 1608. It’s quite a tricky play and this is the first big-screen adaptation of it, directed by Ralph Fiennes (who not only makes his directorial debut but also plays the eponymous character).
The setting of the play has been changed from Ancient Rome to a modern Balkanised warzone, which ‘calls itself
Martius (Fiennes) is a soldier for Rome ,
whose mortal enemy is the Volscian general Aufidius (Gerard Butler). After a particularly
crushing defeat of the Volsces at the town of Rome , Martius is lauded and given the
name ‘Coriolanus’. When Coriolanus is asked to run for the Senate, his contempt
for the hoi-polloi leads the public tribunes to denounce him as a traitor and
have him banished. Coriolanus then tracks down Aufidius and offers himself as a
soldier to the Volsces to bring Corioles
It’s a powerful portrayal of the downfall of a great soldier, directed with some real visual flair by Fiennes (especially with the very visceral battle scenes especially, played without music so you hear every grunt, groan, stab and shot). The quieter scenes are no less powerful, as Fiennes allows the characterisation to grow surrounded by an eclectic but powerful cast.
I was as surprised to learn that Gerard Butler was doing Shakespeare as I was when he was cast as the Phantom of the Opera. Luckily,
can speak Shakespearean verse better than he can sing and provides a decent
foil for Fiennes in their scenes together. Jessica Chastain rounds off a year
of amazing supporting roles by playing the slightly thankless role of Virgilia,
Coriolanus’ wife. She only has a few scenes but plays them well- starting as an
anxious figure awaiting his return but growing in confidence throughout, to the
point where she attacks the public tribunes who banished her husband. Butler
John Kani and Brian Cox appear as Coriolanus’ comrades and friends, both of whom deal with Shakespearean verse as if it were second nature to them. There are two lovely performances by James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson as the public tribunes whose sly, wheedling, snake-in-the-grass politicking gets Coriolanus banished. To round the cast off, giving one of the strongest supporting performances I’ve seen this year to date, is the utterly brilliant Vanessa Redgrave. Every scene she’s in is so riveting and she speaks the verse so fluently that it’s a joy to behold. Volumnia is one of those great but oft-overlooked roles in the Shakespearean canon and Redgrave grabs it by both hands, never more so in the final scene where Volumnia goes to Coriolanus, now allied with the Volsces, to plead for
Updating Shakespeare to modern times is nothing new (you can thank/blame Baz Luhrmann for that) but there is something interesting at play to see what would have been messengers and soothsayers represented by scrolling 24-hour news. Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow pops up in a few places to deliver the dread news of banishment or victory. When Coriolanus meets the public, many of them have mobile phones recording the encounter; similarly, the public meeting where Coriolanus is denounced is done in a television studio. Bizarrely, none of this seems out of place, given the setting and isn’t overly intrusive.
This isn’t going to be for everyone. Coriolanus is an intense play and the transition to film hasn’t softened it. If you’re a fan of Shakespeare and haven’t seen or read this play, it’s an accessible and well-made film full of stand-out performances. Personally, I enjoyed it very much but I can appreciate it may have a rather niche audience.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5