sun 25/08/2019

Coriolanus | reviews, news & interviews

Coriolanus

Coriolanus

Ralph Fiennes brings Shakespeare's bellicose mama's boy to the screen, with Vanessa Redgrave as mum

'Who do you love more: me or mum?' The question Jessica Chastain doesn't ask Ralph Fiennes in Coriolanus

Ralph Fiennes' commitment to the theatre, not least the classical repertoire, has long been a source of wonder, bringing legions of Voldemort followers to see him live, most recently as a movingly hirsute, brooding Prospero in an otherwise heavy-going account of The Tempest. So Fiennes deserves double credit for transmuting the Bardic passions that launched him on stage to the global marketplace of the screen, especially with a title that exists some way from the Hamlet-driven norm that tends to be the Shakespearean celluloid transfer of choice - as Fiennes' fellow Bardolator, Kenneth Branagh, would be the first to tell you.

How, then, is Fiennes's directorial debut as Caius Martius, aka the eponymous Coriolanus, which finds the actor self-cast in a contemporary rendering of the fierce-eyed killing machine who is brought to heel pretty much only by his mother, Volumnia? Fiennes played the role on stage in 2000 for the Almeida during its tenure at the old Gainsborough Studios in an operatic production that boasted a scorching supporting turn from stage veteran Barbara Jefford as Shakespeare's most imposing of mums. And so it is on screen that Vanessa Redgrave's steely, stiff-backed presence in that same part would all but walk off with the film were Fiennes's intensity not every bit as voluble as his way with the language. Think of the result as Rambo (or more precisely, given the talent involved, The Hurt Locker) that marches to an iambic beat. 

Gerard Butler as Aufidius in CoriolanusFiennes, of course, had a vivid cameo in the Kathryn Bigelow Oscar-winner, so it's not surprising that he has co-opted several of the earlier movie's best technicians to help him this time round (cinematographer Barry Ackroyd preeminently). Set in a decidedly Balkanised version of Rome, the action in Fiennes's narrative couples Shakespeare as filleted by the American screenwriter and playwright John Logan (Red, Hugo) with the sort of violence, both promised and actual, designed to cater to the Gladiator brigade. (That film, indeed, was co-written by Logan.) In fact, it's something of a shock near the start of Coriolanus when the visuals give way to the verbal, all the more so because co-star Gerard Butler (pictured above as Aufidius) looks a lot happier sharpening a knife and glowering ominously than speaking lines like "I was moved withal". At which point, Coriolanus's Volscian nemesis might as well be ordering a venti cappuccino. 

Fiennes's company of thesps, as it happens, is a singularly mixed bag, and I suppose it's scant surprise that few among them can match the flair for belligerent rhetoric that comes as second nature to Fiennes, Redgrave, and also Brian Cox, here cast as the Roman senator, Menenius, who is visibly drained by the gathering fractiousness of the world around him. (I also liked the legendary South African actor John Kani as Coriolanus's commanding officer, Cominius.)

Vanessa Redgrave brings Ralph Fiennes to heel in CoriolanusThat world is a strife-ridden modern landscape that allows both a news channel called Fidelis TV, if you please, as well as a glimpse of Jon Snow - though apparently not all that much in the way of "curs", to cite one of several slurs tossed by an ever-contemptuous Coriolanus in the direction of the Roman citizenry. The crowd scenes look startlingly under-populated whether or not one thinks of the "people power" that is chronicled with increasing regularity in the headlines these days, the play's gathering dissatisfaction with lack of corn fuelling the sort of rage to which one finds contemporary equivalents all the time. There's no denying, as with this material on stage, that Coriolanus's default mode - namely scorn - risks putting an audience off, and the film doesn't come with the benefit of being paired with the contrasting humanity of Richard II, a doubling that gave Fiennes's theatrical occupancy of both roles such a charge. (That said, some may be intrigued to find Fiennes here trying out the shaggy-maned look that he later brought to The Tempest, as borne out by Coriolanus's own journey from nostril-flaring skinhead to bearded, banished malcontent.)

The result is a film it's easier to admire than to warm to, though that may simply be in the nature of so singular and single-minded a figure at its core. As with Richard II, Coriolanus doesn't grant its leading man much time for romance, and a teary Jessica Chastain is hardly the first actress to fall at the underwritten hurdle of Virgilia, Coriolanus's cipher of a wife. Then again, you probably wouldn't want as a mother-in-law a flashing-eyed, clarion-voiced woman possessed of a profile one could imagine imprinted on a flag. If the film in the end works best as a Fiennes/Redgrave double-act, that may be no bad thing. (See the two pictured above, as John Kani looks on.) "Anger's my meat," Redgrave's Volumnia announces with a purr that could sink ships. "I sup on myself." Just as Fiennes and his movie feast on her.

Watch the trailer to Coriolanus

The result is a film it's easier to admire than to warm to, though that may simply be in the nature of so single-minded a piece

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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