Hear you this Triton of the minnows?

Ralph Fiennes’ modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragic Coriolanus is either a masterpiece or a travesty depending upon your level of reading comprehension in high school and college.   When I was working on my theatre minor, this was one of the plays I wished our department would put on (next to George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House), but alas, we were stuck with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that one bit of Shakespeare that’s impossible not to “get.”

Fiennes’ version of the story takes place in “Rome,” though the soldiers wear American army fatigues, and the streets and the protesters occupying them look painfully familiar.  As contemporary as the scenery may be, however, we’re still playing by Rome’s rules, and if you want to be on the same level as the characters when the story begins, a basic understanding of Roman government is necessary.  Fiennes plays Caius Martius, a newly appointed general in the running for consul during the era of popular rule.  He almost gets there, but because of the scheming tribunes (James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson), the people realize that Martius, a brutal, idealistic military man who believes the people should have no control over the patricians (“allowing crows to peck at the eagles”), may not be the best person to represent them.  The tribunes push Martius over the edge during a heated conversation in front of the entire capital, driving the latter to denounce the government and its people, a crime punished by banishment.  Eventually, Martius, a shell of himself, forms an alliance with his blood enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), concerned with nothing but vengeance against his country.

Fundamental issues already exist in this narrative, including the fact that Martius has a wife, Virgilia (played by Jessica Chastain, the most prolific actress working today, as far as I’m concerned), often described as one of Shakespeare’s loveliest female characters (which isn’t saying much, but that’s neither here nor there); an overbearing mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), and a young son.  He leaves them behind without a word, also forsaking his friends, including Senator Menenius (Brian Cox).  If Martius loses his self-righteous battle against Rome, can we really see this as a “tragedy?”  He’s a violent maniac, a pathetic husband, and a dangerous political figure.

Performance-wise, Fiennes, Chastain, Redgrave, Cox, and Nesbitt bring their A-games, as one would expect in a film of this type.  Butler, billed as the co-star but playing a character who doesn’t actually appear much, does a competent job looking menacing, but I occasionally got the sense that he memorized the thick Shakespearian dialogue without much thought about its meaning.  Unfortunately, the second half of the film does not live up to the first.  Aside from an extended battle that might make you think you’re watching The Hurt Locker, the film’s first hour is ripe with drama: Martius vs. his mother, Martius vs. his wife, Martius vs. the people, Martius vs. Aufidius, Martius vs. the tribunes.  This is all forgone once he is banished, and the “raid on Rome” is never actually shown, so the desperation of Volumnia and Virgilia to stop him in the climactic confrontation is not completely evident; the scene itself, however, shines.

Additionally, material from the original play is changed and removed, often for incomprehensible reasons.  Why, for example, does screenwriter John Logan choose to have Menenius commit suicide in the latter 3/4 of the film after being unable to convince Martius to halt his advance on Rome?  The danger is not real enough for him to think the entire city is doomed, and his friendship with Martius is never developed enough to make us believe he would be so devastated.  The other unforgivable change is the omission of Aufidius’ final speech in the play, where after seeing to Martius’ death, he expresses not satisfaction despite his lifelong desire to kill the man, but a great sorrow, and orders that Martius be given a noble burial.

Coriolanus is a good film because of its cast.  Fiennes is rarely so fierce, and we’re reminded why Vanessa Redgrave should be leading more ensembles.  I can only assume that the modern combat visuals and bizarre revisions are an attempt to rope in the Call of Duty crowd, but hey, if it gets young people to absorb staples of literary culture (and more so to attempt to understand their construction, flaws, and their racial and gender issues), I support it.

Coriolanus (2011); written by John Logan (adapted from William Shakespeare’s play); directed by Ralph Fiennes; starring Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain, and Gerard Butler.

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