Just shy of Oscar recognition this past year, Ralph Fiennes’s directorial debut “Coriolanus” is a stunning Shakespearean adaptation that flew under the Academy’s radar, and criminally so. The initial critical success of Fiennes’s film was whispered, but now upon it’s DVD release presents an undeniable strength proves to be a must-see. The ever debonair Fiennes is a seasoned Shakespearean stage and screen veteran reporting in for dual roles as director and the film’s title character in one of the most compelling contemporary film adaptations the playwright’s canon has received.
Set in a contemporary urban battlefield, “a place called ROME”,”Coriolanus” opens with the televised news coverage of the war ravaged city. News coverage is spliced together with the somber images of thick hands fingering an ornate knife blade. A faceless man drags the knife’s edge against a slab of sharpening stone in long, meticulous strokes as he watches the televised conflict. And so begins Fiennes’ elegantly captured Shakespearean tragedy of vicious betrayal.
General Martius Caius, played by Fiennes, is a passionate military officer, fighting valiantly against the enemy to protect his beloved country. His arch enemy and leader of citizens rising up against the Roman government is Tullus Aufidius, played by Gerard Butler in his best acting decision. Ever. Kudos. After being decorated as Rome’s poster boy war hero, Coriolanus is then quickly betrayed by two paranoid members of the Roman senate, insistent that if the decorated General shall rise through the political ranks and become more powerful than the government. Fair enough. The two senators, along with Coriolanus’ ruthlessly manipulative mother Volumnia, played by Vanessa Redgrave in a phenomenal performance as a dangerously menacing matriarch and seething puppeteer drunk on her own greed, abandon the war hero in a vindictive betrayal to which he is then banished from Rome. And so Coriolanus lives in exile only to reach out to his sworn enemy, and dedicate himself as he begins to fight against his own countrymen, government and family in a violent retaliation against his unlawful banishment. What then unfolds is an unsettling symphony of retaliation and revenge.
Fiennes’s Coriolanus is unflinchingly ruthless while maintaining an articulate elegance of Shakespeare’s original text. Fiennes’s portrayal of a violent patriot done wrong is brilliantly devastating, but never sentimental. His face is often painted in wet tracks of fresh blood, he is drunk on adrenaline, a conflicted hero whose humanity is continually questioned through his desperate actions. Fiennes presents the existence of an elegance amongst the bloody romp in an interrogation of the humanity in times of war. The film’s terrifying soundtrack consists of bullet shots set to a scene of streets lined with graffiti and the still bleeding corpses of citizens and infantry men alike. Fiennes’s adaptation is a fearless cinematic narrative that remains ever faithful to its original text.
Contemporary Shakespeare adaptations are as common as Lindsay Lohan’s arrests, a couple ever few months that are met with a sigh of familiarity. Most notorious of Shakespearean adaptations of the last fifty years is notably Baz Luhrman’s 1996 Ecstasy and glittered fueled adaptation of “Romeo & Juliet”, which remains a true aesthetic accomplishment of cinema. But Fiennes’s “Coriolanus” succeeds where Luhrman’s spectacular fails, presenting a faithful retelling while presenting an interwoven cultural and political relevance. This is largely accredited to Fiennes’s dedication devotion to source material and an astute intuitiveness to the narrative of Coriolanus itself. Fiennes is a faithful disciple of Shakespeare but also presents an inspired and contemporary adaptation. The pacing is near-flawless as quick cuts between the serene palace of Coriolanus’ mother and wife and the streets of a war torn Rome, littered with shrapnel, still warm bodies alike. A beautifully crafted narrative weaving a faithful Shakespearean. A exploration of the often convoluted distinction between the predator-prey hierarchy in times of war.
The cast of the film is an undeniable highlight that navigates the audience through the bloody betrayal of a decorated military officer executed corrupt Roman senate. Fiennes and Redgrave are an undeniable pair whose verbal sparring provides some of the most chilling moments within the film. Gerard Butler’s Aufidius is unexpectedly fabulous, and the always exquisite Jessica Chastain is perfectly cast as Coriolanus’ often silent wife, submissive but luminescent with a quiet strength that consumes each frame she graces.
DVD and Blu-Ray now available.