As literature students, we have all read Shakespeare's “big four,” the tragedies, “Hamlet”, “Macbeth,” “King Lear” and “Othello”. Watching Ralph Fiennes' reimaging of “Coriolanus,” one wonders where this gem has been hiding among all those tomes of Shakespearean criticism. T. S. Eliot was right in praising the play — I wouldn't go so far as to say it is better than “Hamlet,” but then that is just me.
Though Coriolanus tells the story of a general in ancient Rome and was written in the 16th century, its themes are modern and find echoes in the world today. In Coriolanus, with his single-minded patriotism and cold pride, you can recognise any number of people. The spin doctor, Menenius, the matriarch Volumina, the food riots, the status of women and the fickle public — all are as modern as can be.
In spite of being a play that is almost classically Greek with its hero with his fatal flaw, his hubris, “Coriolanus” is a scarily prescient, modern play. Ralph Fiennes, making his directorial debut, chooses to set the play in modern times. While I expected little leather skirts, flowing togas and a flash of a scarlet cloak, the movie worked spectacularly well.
Coriolanus, like Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, uses Shakespeare's original lines. And there is a special joy to hear iambic pentameter declaimed by some of the greatest actors making for some delightful, goose bump moments. To hear Ralph Fiennes as Coriolanus speak of his enemy as “a Lion I am proud to hunt” or contemptuously tell the rioters to “go get thee home, you fragments,” and describe his wife's kiss “as long as my exile, as sweet as my revenge,” is to fall in love with the power of words again.
In “Coriolanus,” Shakespeare created a not particularly likeable hero. He is fanatically proud and yet unwilling to be praised for what he believes is his job. Brutally honest, he will not bow and perform to win over the public. A true patriot, he is brilliant and brave in battle but at a loss in politics. There are no soliloquies to explain the storm within.
Fiennes' Coriolanus has captured the essence of this fastidious general with an open contempt for the masses. Fiennes excels in these kinds of cipher roles — be it the psychopathic Amon Goeth in “Schindler's List” or Count Almásy in “The English Patient” or as Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter film series.
Here too, the tight close-ups go into the depths of Coriolanus' eyes but we still try to make sense of his ambitions. Vanessa Redgrave is magnificent as Volumnia. Gerard Butler, the strange accent notwithstanding, makes for a perfect foil to Coriolanus with his easy manner and laidback charm.
Thank you, Ralph Fiennes for bringing one of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays to the mainstream.
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain
Storyline: A general joins forces with his enemy to take revenge on the country that banishes him.
Bottomline: As current as ever and Shakespeare totally rocks
Keywords: Coriolanus film review