April 9, 2012

Quick review: CORIOLANUS (World Cinema Showcase)

You gotta give Ralph Fiennes credit for the size of his balls. Not only does he make his directorial debut adapting Shakespeare, but he does so with one of the Bard's lesser known plays and one that has never previously been filmed. That takes chutzpah.

One of Shakespeare's tragedies, Coriolanus is set in ancient Rome. The title character is a gung-ho general in the army, happy to charge into fierce battle with his men and with a prideful disdain for the common citizens. Events take a turn for the worse when Coriolanus is pimped up for a place on the Senate and two slippery types decide to turn the people against him. He is banished from the city; from the home he has fought and bled for and surrenders himself to the city's great enemies, to help them overthrow the Roman people. Through prideful vengeance he turns on the people of his home and visits ruination upon them.

So, it is a play with a lot to it; with a lot of meaty themes to chew over. And Fiennes updates the setting to modern times; to a modern Rome as an obvious stand-in for the United States. He makes ample use of CNN and "action-news" style cutaways to cover a lot of exposition. But where, say Baz Luhrmann invested his retelling of Romeo & Juliet with fizz and glam, Fiennes keeps things sombre.

Frankly, I've never really been a big fan of the Bard. Perhaps that is thanks to years of dreary high-school and University lectures and monotone recitations by students who don't understand the language. But in a film like Fiennes', and with the mouths of such skilful actors as Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox playing with the poetry, the language truly flows and lives.

I don't really know if the rest of the film does though. The story seems almost too big for the film. I know this will be seen as an impossible heresy by some, but I couldn't help thinking that this would have been better with the story used as a jumping-off point for a miniseries or TV series. In this way, the modern setting could be more fully embraced and there could be more time to delve into these characters and their lives. Coriolanus is not the most sympathetic character around - he is prideful, vengeful and full of contempt for those ordinary citizens who make up the masses but fight in no army. But there is much to intrigue about him - his anger is understandable, he has a domineering mother constantly pushing at him and he has little interest in parading himself and his wounds to "prove" his service to Rome. He is a complex and intriguing, but haughtily unsympathetic, tragic figure.

Coriolanus is an interesting adaptation that so very nearly works. And again, the sheer stones on that man Fiennes. 

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