William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is one of the Great Bard’s most complicated and longest plays, making an adaptation a brave move for the directorial debut of actor Ralph Fiennes. To counter this, Coriolanus (2011) boasts an impressive cast of great acting talent, including Vanessa Redgrave, Gerald Butler, Brian Cox and Jessica Chastain.
Fiennes has transported the action from ancient Rome to war-torn Eastern Europe. The great general, Caius Martius Coriolanus (Fiennes), has returned home from his country’s current war to find himself at odds with the nation’s citizens, who believe him to be a tyrant looking only for personal glory. When his ambitious mother Volumnia (Redgrave) states her wish that her son become consul of Rome, both the senate and the people turn against Coriolanus and exile him. Here, he is forced to ally himself with his past enemy Aufidius (Butler) in order to take revenge against his people.
Modern adaptations of Shakespeare have always met with mixed reviews. Many loved Baz Lurman’s Romeo and Juliet (1996), whilst understandably many still wince at the memory of Ethan Hawke’s abortive Hamlet (2000). Feinnes’ Coriolanus falls somewhere between the two.
Along with Brian Cox, 300 (2008) Gerard Butler (who surprisingly plays his role exceptionally well), provide some of the most memorable and impressive scenes in the film. There are some great flourishes as Feinnes utilises his film’s modern setting – Channel 4 news anchor Jon Snow reports on the country’s political situation – which provide some truly enjoyably moments.
However, Coriolanus – like any Shakespearean hero – is not without its flaws. There are numerous scenes added to the text in order to provide context, which feel extremely clumsy. More surprisingly, the main problem lies with Fiennes’ performance – in Coriolanus, he acts as if on stage. Screen acting and theatrical performance require different skills; this essential point appears to be something Fiennes has forgotten. He doesn’t always utilise the camera, instead choosing instead to sweep across the set in a fashion all to reminiscent of his OTT performance as Voldermort in the Harry Potter franchise.
Fiennes seems to have opted for a subject a little too close to his heart, and this in turn has clouded his directorial judgement. Coriolanus is by no means entirely weak, at times possessing moments of flair and originality, but it is ultimately disappointing.
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