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Coriolanus

Ralph Fiennes takes on double-duty as star and director of “Coriolanus”…his debut behind the camera. An accomplished Shakespearean performer(I saw his Tony-winning Hamlet on Broadway in 1995), he still took a major risk in bringing one of the Bard’s lesser known tragedies to the big screen(although it was my privilege and a thrill to see a renowned stage version of “Coriolanus” in London starring Toby Stephens—son of the legendary Dame Maggie Smith—btw, also in 1995). This play may not be ordained with the greatness attributed to Macbeth or King Lear, but it certainly has its champions in certain critical circles. And Fiennes, along with screenwriter John Logan, wisely updates it to a contemporary Iraq-like conflict for this film version. It may have been written four hundred years ago, but the modern day setting makes it feel fresh and new and alive. And the secondary cast is marvelous, with the no less than the genius prowess of Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia and the brilliant Brian Cox as Menenius, among others(including the prolific Jessica Chastain, in her 437th film role of 2011—this girl gets around).               Logan and Fiennes don’t waste much time, so they get quickly to the point in this tightly paced adaptation. Caius Martius(Mr. Fiennes)is a celebrated Roman warrior. His reputation as a military master is secure, but he is openly disdainful of the “common” people. He’s great, he knows he’s great, and he is arrogant to the point of refusing to kiss anyone’s ass—they should simply accept and celebrate his greatness. He is annointed with the moniker of  Coriolanus after emerging victorious in the siege of Corioles, and is encouraged by his mother(Ms. Redgrave)to seek higher office upon his return. Reluctant at first, he eventually acquiesces and garners wide support. But here comes that old arrogance bugaboo again. Coriolanus flies off the handle at the idea of “lesser” people having any say over the elite few, so the commoners rise up against him and have him banished from Rome. Upon this, a dripping with confidence Coriolanus, announces that it is he who banishes Rome—and not the other way around. During his exile, Coriolanus seeks out his enemy Tullus Aufidius(Gerard Butler), and suggests an alliance to launch an assault on the city as revenge.               This was a powerful theatre piece when I first experienced it in the 1990’s and Fiennes has done a commendable job in bringing it to a mass audience. Not only does the contemporary approach to the tale draw parallels with the U.S. wars in the desert, but Coriolanus’ treatment of the lower classes obviously brings to mind the Occupy movement of the last several months. This brings a modern touchstone to an already timeless work. Politics and its consequences are handled simply but never in a puerile fashion. And the battles are lucid and just brutal enough to have you appreciate the stakes. Plus, I stand in awe of Vanessa Redgrave. At 75, she continues to be a mesmerizing screen presence—she remains a masterful film actress with very few peers. And Mr. Fiennes embodies a compelling Coriolanus and deftly handles his directing duties by keeping the pacing electric and fluid. This release was horribly mishandled when briefly appearing in theaters a few months back, and will hopefully find a deserving new audience on DVD.      Grade:  A-

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2 comments on “Coriolanus

  1. Tremendous performances, especially from Fiennes and Redgrave but his intensity felt tiresome at points. Obviously this is not meant to be a well-rounded character but the 200% intensity was exhausting. Still, there are parts of this I would happily show to a high school english class and say, “This is how it’s supposed to be heard.”

    Loved the modern take and the way they took bits from many different cultures and made it seem something different, yet familiar.

    • As much as I can recall, when I saw it on stage in London, Toby Stephen’s was an equally intense Coriolanus. Of course, the camera requires more subtlety, and I believe many Shakespearean performers find it difficult to tone down their work for the big screen. Btw, regarding Redgrave, upon checking my big black book theatre ledger, I confirmed that I ALSO saw HER on stage in 1995 in off-Broadway’s “Vita & Virginia”. What a year of plays it was on BOTH sides of the Atlantic! ML

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