AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL 2011
By Don Simpson | October 28, 2011
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Writers: John Logan, William Shakespeare (play)
Starring: Gerard Butler, Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave, James Nesbitt, Lubna Azabal, Ashraf Barhom, John Kani
Coriolanus opens in Rome soon after the expulsion of the Tarquin kings and the Roman citizens (the 99%, if you will) are up in arms because the man (the 1%, if you will) is withholding their access to grain. The unruly citizens specifically blame a Roman general named Caius (Ralph Fiennes) for their state of woe — to which Caius fiercely retorts that the plebeians are not worthy of the grain due to their lack of military service.
Caius then goes off to battle against the Volscian army, specifically targeting their commander, Tullus (Gerard Butler). Upon his return to Rome, the leader of the Roman army, Cominius (John Kani) grants Caius the title of “Coriolanus”. Coriolanus’ mother (Vanessa Redgrave) encourages her son to ride this tidal wave of popularity and run for political office. He effortlessly wins the support of the Roman Senate, but the commoners are a trickier matter; especially because two tribunes of Rome — Brutus (Paul Jesson) and Sicinius (James Nesbitt) — are scheming to undo Coriolanus by spinning a web of rhetoric in order to convince the malleable masses that Coriolanus is not a hero but a traitor to Rome.
The Complete Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) refers to William Shakespeare’s much overlooked Coriolanus as “the anus play”; as if not strange enough that Ralph Fiennes opts to feature Shakespeare’s “anus play” as his directorial debut, he then chooses to set the John Logan adapted tale (mind the pun) in a non-specific (presumably contemporary) time period.
Fiennes’ approach to Coriolanus seems to be one of disorientation. As if delivering the antiquated prose of Shakespeare into a modern setting is not jarring enough, Fiennes utilizes an international cast, who speak unabashedly in their native accents. To top it all off, Fiennes juxtaposes the displaced dialogue and voices with the shaky kino-eye of neo-realist cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (Green Zone, The Hurt Locker, Battle in Seattle) in order to convey a pseudo-documentary aesthetic. As the unreal and the hyper-real clash, no survivors are taken.
Fiennes’ jarring technique is Brechtian at best (it is worth noting that Brecht worked on an adaptation of Coriolanus but died before he completed it). Sure, history does repeat itself and correlations between Shakespearean times and today can occasionally work quite effectively, but contemporary language is nothing like Shakespearean prose and some scenarios — in this case, the trials and tribulations of Coriolanus — lose their luster when taken out of their original historical context (Richard Loncraine’s Richard III being the only exception I can currently think of).