William Shakespeare adaptations will, I suspect, be with us until the last dying gasp of filmmaking. It’s not hard to see why, what with there being seemingly infinite ways to tweak his work so as to appear unique: modern setting with classic dialogue (Macbeth, 2006); modern setting with updated dialogue (Hamlet, 2000); period setting with classic dialogue (Much Ado About Nothing, 1993); international versions (Ran, 1985); plucky teen versions (10 Things I Hate About You, 1999), dramatic teen version (O, 2001); epics (Hamlet, 1996); arthouse (My Own Private Idaho, 1991); animated (The Lion King, 1994); gay (Were the World Mine, 2008); musical (West Side Story, 1955); weird anachronistic amalgamations of all (Titus, 1999), … the list goes on!
So we come to Coriolanus, the first cinematic adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays. Star and director Ralph Fiennes (The Reader) certainly hasn’t made it easy on newcomers by choosing to use the original text amidst a modern war-torn setting. The complex and tragic story of a brutish man being manipulated by forces beyond his control (including a deliciously wicked Vanessa Redgrave (Atonement) as his mother, Volumnia) for the sake of power and honour. Fiennes stars as Caius Martius Coriolanus, a war hero to some but to others, like the rebel leader Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler, 300), he is the villain.
Wait, did I get all of that right?
Even now, after reading up on the play, I can’t entirely tell you what it’s truly about. And perhaps that’s my own fault rather than the film’s, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that knowing little of the play will probably be of incredible detriment to viewers. Why Fiennes chose to use Shakespearean text is confusing, especially when he must have known that Coriolanus isn’t the most recognisable of Shakespeare’s plays. When Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet) utilised classical text within a modern period, he was saying something about the power of language to breach eras, but here it feels decidedly unnecessary. Set in Rome and filmed in Serbia, Coriolanus certainly has the feel of a historical context, but with characters toting machine guns and watching television (a expositional device that Luhrmann used to much better effect) amongst the shaky handheld of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, it’s hard to marry the two alongside the dialogue that, for long stretches, doesn’t make a lick of sense.
The performances, especially those of Redgrave and Brian Cox as Menenius, are uniformly fine, even if Fiennes has a tendency to chew scenery like he’s Hannibal Lecter. It’s a tough film to critique given one’s enjoyment of it will surely directly correlate to their knowledge of the play. Coriolanus isn’t a bad film, just one I found misjudged. The gritty atmosphere of a crumbling empire is most definitely in the air, but Fiennes and his writer, John Logan (Hugo) fail in successfully marrying that to the text.
Coriolanus opens in Australia on March 8th
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain,
James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson