Sunday, May 13, 2012

Movie review: Coriolanus

In case anyone had any foolish doubts about the relevance of Shakespeare in our current times, Ralph Fiennes lays them all to rest with his startling, severe rendition of the tragedy of Coriolanus.  It is the story of Caius Martius Coriolanus, the blue-blooded war hero who leads Rome's armies to victory while holding a deep-seated contempt for the city's common people.  His bravery wins him Rome's love; his pride repulses her.  (Oh fatal pride!)  Driven on by his honor-hungry, warlike mother, Coriolanus is pushed into a terrible fate that destroys not only his physical body, but that which he holds most dear, his sacred honor.  In the end, he proves human and is therefore destroyed.

This is a film very much about the world today.  Fiennes deftly introduces modern phenomena in convincing fashion.  Cast extras flit about with video-recording cell phones and digital cameras to give the work a modern day appearance.  Protesting Roman citizens recall the Occupy protests that swept the United States last year.  Urban combat scenes, although depicted as occurring in Italy, very much reminded of the savage fighting that occurred at the end of the last century in the Balkans just across the slender Adriatic.  Fiennes makes use of off-focus shots and video footage to give the film a modern media appearance. 

In yet another nod toward our civilization's evolving mores, Fiennes film introduces a hint of martial homo-eroticism into the story.  The hand-to-hand combat between Coriolanus and Aufidius has an almost sexual intimacy; the cultish warriors who follow Coriolanus indulge in initiation orgies that are highly suggestive.  An interesting interpretation that I'm not sure Shakespeare (whoever he was) might have imagined. 

Beyond the successful set construction, however, it's the acting that makes this film.  Fiennes himself is marvelous in the title role.  His steel-eyed gaze and Roman nose give him the appearance of a pitiless predator. (And quite a jarring contrast with his role in The English Patient.) Gerald Butler, in the role of Coriolanus' arch-enemy, Titus Aufidius, provides a mirror-image of his rival, but with certain crucial differences.  Brian Cox, a versatile and under-recognized actor, is the conciliating Senator Meninius. But the standout performance, in my mind, was Vanessa Redgrave as the frighteningly martial Volumnia, Coriolanus' unyielding mother.

Five minutes into this film, I knew I was watching a winner.  Granted, I'm a sucker for Shakespeare.  But, if there is such a thing as an obscure Shakespeare play, Coriolanus might qualify. Fiennes could have taken a safer road by producing yet another of the Big Four (Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, Othello).  Instead, he chose Coriolanus to demonstrate its relevance in the 21st century.

I'd say he succeeded admirably.

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