Review: Coriolanus

Directed by: Ralph Fiennes
Written by:John Logan
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain, James Nesbitt
Released: March 8, 2012
Grade: B

Most of William Shakespeare’s plays have been translated into film but this is the first time that Coriolanus has made it to the big screen.  I can now see why it’s taken so long.  It’s a great story… but it’s also a very complicated one.  There are many characters to follow and many motives to understand.

To sum it up as simply as possible, it centres on a strong Roman general named Caius Martius (Fiennes) who ruthlessly upholds the law and protects the city’s inhabitants.  When Rome is threatened by an invading Volscian army led by arch-rival Tullus Aufidius (Butler), Martius retaliates by successfully attacking the Volscian city of Corioles.

He returns home as a hero and is given the nickname of Coriolanus.  Pressured by his friends and family, he decides to capitalise on his popularity and enter the political arena.  It’s a decision he will regret.  Two conspirators do not believe Coriolanus is fit to hold office and are doing everything possible to turn the public against him.

He may be a brilliant warrior but Coriolanus doesn’t quite have the “gift of the gab” when it comes to politics.  You won’t see him out in the street kissing babies and making small talk with locals.  He is a proud man who does not like show-boating.  He is also very firm with his beliefs and refuses to compromise on any issue.

It doesn’t take long for the conspirators to seize on these weaknesses.  His approval rating plummets and Coriolanus is infuriated.  For many years, he has risked his life in battle to protect this city he loves.  Now, he is portrayed in the media as a flawed leader and his reputation is in tatters.  The time has come to seek vengeance…

Making his directorial debut, Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List, The English Patient) has worked with writer John Logan (Gladiator, Hugo) to modernise this compelling tale.  It may be 400 years since Shakespeare penned this work but the story feels just as relevant today with its exploration of war and politics.  It leaves you with food for thought.  Those hungry for action will be impressed by the intense fight sequences.

Unfortunately, I can’t say I approve of the decision to retain the Shakespearean dialect.  If I’d have studied this play and was more familiar with the story, it wouldn’t have been a problem.  I bumped into Geoffrey Rush at the media screening for this film at the Toronto Film Festival and he described it as “brilliant”.  As a man who starred in many Shakespearean plays early in his career, that’s a big compliment.

I’m not so fortunate however.  Watching this film, it was a constant struggle trying to keep up with the conversations and understand what everyone was saying.  I almost wished there were subtitles.  The Hollywood-style trailer tries to mask the challenging dialogue so do tread carefully before buying a ticket.  I feel like saying “caveat emptor” but that may only confuse you further.