A misanthrope for our times
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Feb. 17, 2012
Ralph Fiennes invests Shakespeare's play "Coriolanus" with ferocity and fresh vigor in his film of the same name, which transposes the story of an ancient Roman general to the present day with ease and uncanny relevance.
In "a place calling itself Rome," the populace is rioting in response to a shortage of bread, while a group of dissidents plots the assassination of the ruthless general behind the famine, a career military hero named Caius Martius (Fiennes).
While he contemptuously dismisses the rabble as "curs" and "fragments," troops from nearby Volscia are massing at Rome's borders, with Martius's rival, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), sharpening his knife to finally do in his mortal enemy.
When Martius leaves to defend the city, and returns to pursue a political career at the urging of his mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), what ensues is a study of bellicosity, vainglory and political rhetoric as timely and urgent as anything on a cable news ticker.
In fact, those tickers feature prominently in "Coriolanus," which Fiennes has staged with impeccable attention to mass-culture details, from narrative exposition delivered by way of a BBC-esque news anchor to the film's opening political demonstration that plays like an Occupy Grain Elevator demonstration. (Martius's withering diatribe against the gathered horde is duly recorded on outstretched cellphones.)
With the lightweight political drama "Ides of March" up for an Oscar, it bears noting that Shakespeare was not only writing about spinmeisters, public gaffes and partisan scheming 400 years ago, but doing it better and with more bite.
Thankfully, screenwriter John Logan ("Hugo") has preserved Shakespeare's original language, which doesn't sound the least bit mannered or archaic when spoken by people wearing NATO-era fatigues or delivered by way of Skype; rather, it crackles with fresh urgency and verve. Similarly Barry Ackroyd - the cinematographer behind the jittery visual style of the "Bourne" movies and "The Hurt Locker" - gives "Coriolanus" a riveting sense of immediacy, especially during the story's blood-drenched fight sequences that result in Fiennes's bullet-headed protagonist resembling a scarified tribal shaman.
Thanks to Fiennes's sensitivity as an actor and a director, Martius remains a slippery character, especially after he's given the honorary surname Coriolanus and embarks on a political career that is anything but well advised, given his prickly, elitist aloofness. He's an arrogant, abusive misanthrope, but there's something to admire about his steadfast refusal to pander, even when his ally, a senator named Menenius (Brian Cox), urges him to show off his battle scars for the cheap seats.
If Fiennes, who played the role on stage in 2000, easily conveys his character's most vexing contradictions, it's Redgrave who dominates "Coriolanus" in an exquisite dagger-sharp portrayal of a woman who, at least initially, gives the lie to aggression and blood lust being a uniquely male purview. Having recently stolen the show as Queen Elizabeth in the revisionist Shakespearean spectacle "Anonymous," she now gets to tuck in to the Bard himself, her commanding presence and crystalline delivery lending equal parts music and meaning to "Coriolanus's" tough, lambent prose.
Fiennes has cleared the great hurdle of any adaptation that seeks to "update" Shakespeare, which is to cast a respectful and celebratory glance back at the playwright's genius while evincing an unerring sense of where the text is most porous and elastic. "Coriolanus" is a triumph on both counts. Moreover, at a time when patricians and plebes are duking it out in public opinion, when demonstrators are being tear-gassed on the streets of Athens and American voters are subjected to a daily showcase of political conniving and rhetorical excess, it could not resonate with more clarity or cautionary zeal.
Contains bloody violence.