There have been a number of modern adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays over the last two decades. So much so that transporting the classic tomes to a more contemporary setting isn’t as fresh as it used to be. Therefore, when making that creative decision there has to be a specific vision that can transform the material into something fresh and new. Ralph Fiennes pretty much accomplishes that feat with his directorial debut, “Coriolanus.”
A tale of reckless vengeance, the play and film is based on the life of legendary Roman hero Gaius Marcius Coriolanus. Coriolanus or Caius Martius (Fiennes) is persuaded by his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) to run for the counsul of Rome after defeating the Volscian army lead by Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). Coriolanus, however, is hardly a man of the people and finds himself sucked into a political web when he rails against the idea of the people having a say in the government. The tribunes of Rome brand Coriolanus as a traitor and banish him from the city. After spending quite a long time traveling outside “Rome” (or what appears to be an Eastern European inspired country), Coriolanus approaches Aufidius about uniting to defeat his former nation. They succeed brilliantly and only an emotional plea from Volumnia can halt Coriolanus from completing his wish to destroy the city. Coriolanus than returns to the Volscians where he is branded a traitor and killed.
As a filmmaker, Fiennes has a wonderful eye and his work with Logan in setting the work in the framework of a Serbian/Croatian conflict is smart and engaging. That battle scenes at the beginning are impressive and give the film a scope you wouldn’t necessarily expect from the material. He’s also assisted by a charismatic turn by Redgrave, a lively Brian Cox and his own passionate and gut-wrenching performance. Unfortunately, the film has two faults that prevent it from being the masterwork Fiennes was aiming for. The first is Butler who seems out of place as Aufidius. We’re not doubting Butler can pull off something as difficult as Shakespeare, but his acting style doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the cast in this instance. The second is more problematic. The entire film hinges on the dramatic moment when Volumnia convinces Coriolanus to call of his attack. It’s a major change of heart for a man who has shown little but a zeal for military precision with little emotion in his actions. Redgrave and Fiennes give it their all, but it simply doesn’t work on screen in context of the movie. It’s similar to the climax from Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” where Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) wakes up to discover Juliet (Claire Danes) has mistakenly killed herself. Even after it was famously reshot, the scene still couldn’t pull a tear from most moviegoers. That’s pretty much the same case here.
On the awards front, Fiennes could be a dark horse in the director race (stretch), but is certainly a best actor candidate. Redgrave is the true contender here in best supporting actress race (assuming she doesn’t get more support for her turn in “Anonymous”). Costumes, production design and cinematography all have legitimate shots as well.
More importantly, Fiennes joins the short list of actors who appear to have made a strong transition to directing. It seriously makes you wonder what he’ll do next.
It is assumed “Coriolanus” has a one week Oscar qualifying run sometime in Dec. It is currently set to open in limited release an 13.