Sunday, January 29, 2012

Movie Review: Coriolanus

Coriolanus (2011)
Directed By: Ralph Fiennes
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox and Jessica Chastain

The plays of William Shakespeare have been adapted, dissected and pulled-apart on screen since the invention of film. Over the decades, various directors have attempted to sell the Bard's timeless tales to new generations of audiences, all to varying degrees of success. While some purists may shrug off the adaptations that have supplanted the plots to modern times, this latest re-imagining of Coriolanus is an exceptional argument as to why it's sometimes appropriate to give a modern twist on a classic tale.

Roman General Caius Martius 'Coriolanus' (Ralph Fiennes) is a creature of war. Raised single-handedly by his a tyrant of a mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), Coriolanus only knows how to communicate with weapons of warfare. Egged on by his ambitious mother, he seeks election to the powerful office of Consul. However, the few times he ventures forth to speak to the public, the end result is chaotic as his starving countrymen voice their outrage over the prolonged war and famine they've suffered at his hands as a General. Not one to keep his rage in check, Coriolanus' verbal outburst results in a full-blown riot which forces him to flee Rome and join ranks with his bitter enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). Coriolanus will take back Rome on his own terms -- his fellow countrymen be damned.

Although little is known about Coriolanus' political motivation (does he really crave the Consulship for any other reason than personal gain or is he just following through on mother's orders?), he remains a fascinating character nonetheless. His all-consuming arrogance sometimes briefly gives way to quieter, more emotional moments, often shared with his mother or wife, Virgilia (Jessica Chastain). Although these scenes of psychological vulnerability are few and far between, they suggest an inner-torment; a softer, more human, side to Coriolanus that, unfortunately, always recedes into the background when his rage comes to the forefront. As played by Fiennes, Coriolanus is a commanding presence -- capable of instilling fear in even his most strongest opponents. Fiennes is a force to be reckoned with and his performance is nothing short of captivating. The reason you want to learn more about the actual man behind the facade of the feared General is because of his wonderful performance.

Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave
The rest of the cast are all equally excellent, specifically Redgrave as Volumnia, Coriolanus' mighty mother. Her ambition and unwavering love for her only son is beautifully executed in all of Redgrave's scenes. An absolute powerhouse of a performance, it's a shame Redgrave wasn't recognized with an Oscar nomination. Chastain is solid in the underwritten role of Coriolanus' wife. We aren't sure why she's so loyal to her violent husband or why she's so submissive to the will of his mother, but Chastain more than holds her own in a performance that rounds out a terrific debut year for her. As Tullus Aufidius, Butler is all barely concealed rage -- he loathes Coriolanus and, when he reluctantly agrees to help his sworn enemy reclaim Rome, it slowly begins to dawn on him that he may have made a fatal error in judgment in trusting Coriolanus in the first place.

Filmed as though it were a modern political documentary -- its jerky, handheld war footage revolves around issues like democracy, class wars, political egos and the nation state -- Coriolanus is a stunning technical achievement, nailing all of its brutal scenes of familial intimacy and violent warfare out in the field. Wearing camouflage, his face covered in blood and warpaint, the audience is left to wonder if Coriolanus -- reduced to a deadened shell of a solider -- even has an ounce of humanity left in him, once all is said and done.