Movie Review – Coriolanus (2011)
by NIR SHALEV
Coriolanus exists in our contemporary society and was shot entirely in Belgrade, Serbia. It takes place in “a city that calls itself Rome,” taken directly from Shakespeare’s play and it depicts the tragic tale of General Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes).
At the film’s start, we see Rome’s citizens protesting against their government’s dictatorial regime and the way that it has suppressed their food supplies. Enter General Caius Martius, a man that would fight bloody wars for his country and countrymen but he also, simultaneously hates Rome’s citizens. A famous line is uttered as Fiennes’ first line in the film:
What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues
That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
Make yourselves scabs?
Caius Martius believes that the citizens of Rome like neither peace nor war. For that he hates them, but never to their faces. Still, he marches off to war against Rome’s enemies, the Volscians who came knocking at their door. He fights with knives against his arch nemesis Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) and at a stalemate, the two are separated and return to their countries. Aufidius returns to his underground lair and Caius Martius returns to Rome to deliver positive news.
His return as a war hero is received well and he’s awarded the surname Coriolanus. He has the full support of his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), his wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain), and his best friend, and one of Rome’s senators, Menenius Agrippa (Brian Cox). Soon after he is given a position in office and asked to become a leading political figure alongside being the hero that brought “peace” to Rome, always temporarily. But Coriolanus can’t lie nor does he have a single dishonest bone in his body. He cannot stare the citizens of Rome in the eyes like a political puppet, put on a fake smile, and deliver news that is entirely fabricated. This “weakness” is witnessed by two of Rome’s tribunes, Sicinius Velutus (James Nesbitt) and Junius Brutus (Paul Jesson). They will have Coriolanus fall and fall hard. They turn all of Rome’s citizens against him, hating him more they’ve ever hated him before, and before long he is betrayed by Rome and exiled.
You can watch the film’s trailer to find out what happens next but I won’t ruin it. It’s brilliant, it’s tragic, and it’s wholly Shakespearean.
Fiennes has performed the character on the stage, roughly a decade ago, so he knows exactly how to interpret and deliver it and his performance is menacing and brilliant. The cold, hard gaze that he delivers at the film’s start does not waver nor does he ever fall out of character, which allows the audience to sympathize with him during his great downfall. The supporting actors all deliver tremendous performances, especially Brian Cox. He can recite Shakespearean monologues in his sleep and indeed is very fun to watch in this film. Jessica Chastain never disappoints and neither does Vanessa Redgrave. I liked Gerard Butler, too. The actors portraying the citizens and tribunes deliver tremendous jobs, making us hate them from the start and as the film progresses we want to reach into the screen and strangle them. That’s the job of a good director and Fiennes, also the film’s director does a very good job.
Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and sound mixer Ray Beckett have both worked with Fiennes before in The Hurt Locker, and Coriolanus also looks great. During the early, brief but terrific action sequence we can clearly tell what’s happening on screen and at all times. Through the fog of war we can make out random faces and shooting the action sequence on location in previously war-torn areas of Serbia makes for a believable battlefield and location.
I can’t stress this enough: the screenplay by John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo) is tight and powerful; the performances are all fantastic; and the cinematography, utilizing a handheld look and feel but lacking the nausea effect works like a charm. Here is a terrific first entry for Ralph Fiennes as a director, alongside a mesmerizing and masterful performance, and a film that I can’t seem to shake from my subconscious.
Having read many of Shakespeare’s plays and having watched many of the film adaptations, I’ve rarely felt connected to his protagonists and antagonists. It’s usually the situation that overwhelms the character development and it’s especially true in the case of Hamlet. I’ve always found the character to be a weak person, which is why he’s never accomplished anything in his life. However, when it comes to Titus Andronicus and Caius Martius Coriolanus I felt their pain and at one point in each story I was on the verge of tears. Those are the plays and film adaptations that have managed to get to me emotionally and Coriolanus is a tremendously powerful film. He was a man that did all he could to please all of those beneath him and in return he was backstabbed and left for dead. It’s not just the politics in the story and the way that they’re handled, it’s also the idea and presentation of the fall of a great man. Here it’s presented in an unflinching, truthful manner and I respect that. I was thoroughly entertained.