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Coriolanus

TedFlicks Rating: ★★★½☆

$8.00 ticket on a scale of $0 to $13.50

SHAKESPEARE SET IN THE TIME OF TV

The most annoying thing about Ralph Fiennes’ cinematic adaptation of William Shakespeare’s tragedy, “Coriolanus,” is the British pronunciation of the title.  It sounds like a body part.  Other than that, adapting a six-hour Shakespeare play to a 130 minute movie without dropping too many plot elements is no mean feat.  Kudos go to Fiennes in his debut directing himself in the title role and to screenwriter John Logan for knowing what to cut from the Bard’s dialogue without gutting it.

Pic is hardly stagebound, and that’s not bad for a play that is about 400 years old.  Part of the accomplishment is due to locations.  For financial reasons filmmakers made use of the former Yugoslavia rather than Shakespeare’s setting, ancient Rome.  As a result they got the use of the Serbian parliament building as the Roman Senate chamber.  They also got a good many bombed out buildings in which to stage pic’s battles.  Extras in battle scenes are mostly the Serbian anti-terrorist police.  The present-day setting is credible.

More credit for filmmakers’ success goes to an ingenious device.  In Shakespeare’s day, news of battles was conveyed on stage by messengers.  In Fiennes’ and Logan’s adaptation, news from the front is conveyed by omnipresent television screens tuned to a cable news channel.  Messengers’ lines are put in the mouths of field reporters, supers, and talking head commentators.  It works.

“Coriolanus” is a tragedy.  Accordingly the star is a tragic figure brought down by his own pride and disdain for the common folk.  Fiennes’ Coriolanus is a life-long soldier, now a general, putting down first the bread riots in Rome (in which he suspends civil liberties) and later an attack by the Romans’ sworn enemies, the Volsce, led by Gerard Butler as Tullus Aufidius.  As a reward for his success in battle, Rome’s Patrician party nominates him successfully for Consul.  Coriolanus may be up to the job, but he is hardly up to socializing with ordinary citizens.  That, and a pair of Tribunes of the People played by James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson, are his undoing.  The Tribunes are convinced that Coriolanus will become a dictator.  They stir the citizens against him.  Coriolanus is banished from Rome and turns traitor, joining the Volsce.  Heck, he could have gone to Greece and hung out on the islands until his mom, Volumina, ably played by the formidable Vanessa Redgrave, fixed it for him to return.

Note to actors:  Avoid at all costs acting in the same frame as Redgrave.  You will be overwhelmed.

But the Greek Islands would have made “Coriolanus” a comedy.  No.  Coriolanus has to screw up everything royally.  He turns traitor and joins his sworn enemy Tullus Aufidius in an assault intended to pillage Rome.

Anyone familiar with Shakespeare’s play needs no further comment on the plot except to say that Menenius (head of the Patrician party and close friend of Volumina), played by Brian Cox, slits his wrist on the banks of the Tiber after his every effort on Coriolanus’ behalf in politics and eventually in ending the Volsce war against Rome comes to naught.  Shakespeare did not write that.

Unfortunately, except for some pivotal scenes, pic lags in its first 90 minutes.  One could blame this on the dead guy, Shakespeare.  Among the early highlights are a scene in which Volumina bandages Coriolanus’ battle wounds.  His wife, Virgilia (Jessica Chastain), passing by the bathroom, sees this, but unseen herself, passes by.  She conveys a lot with a facial expression, which is a good thing, because her part is relatively small.  Another is a bedroom scene where Coriolanus is just too stiff, too rigid (no pun intended) to respond to Virgilia’s romantic overture.

Pic’s turning point is set in a TV studio where Coriolanus shows his colors.  There, before a studio audience to dispel accusations that he cares little for the people and would be a dictator as consul, he loses his temper and falls right into the trap set by the Tribunes.  It is brilliant.  And remember that the dialogue is in verse.

Ultimately Rome is saved by Volumina.  Vanessa Redgrave carries tremendous force on stage and screen.  Given Shakespeare’s words to address Coriolanus at the gates of Rome, she shatters him with a power that few other actors can bring to a role.  Fiennes showed tremendous courage in casting her against himself.

There are a few quibbles:  Coriolanus’ head is shaven, making him look like Mussolini.  According to Fiennes the likeness was not a conscious choice, merely a fashion statement.  It works.  It makes Fiennes, who hardly appears to be dangerous, look menacing.  But given the 20th century historical connection, it distracts.  Volumina often appears in military uniform without explanation.  Final quibble is location.  The former Yugoslavia may be cheap, but Belgrade bears no resemblance to the grandeur of the Roman Republic.  Filmmakers work around it by using tight shots whenever possible.

Lensing by Barry Ackroyd gets the point across without excessive special effects, much as if Shakespeare, himself, had access to modern cinema.  Cutting by Nicolas Gaster could be a tad more cold blooded.  Coriolanus’ traitorous journey to the Volsce takes too long.  Fiennes could have a future as a helmer.  Sound recording leaves little do be desired, which is a good thing since 99% of the dialogue was written in 400-year-old English verse.  Much of the credit has to go the superb, classically trained, cast.

“Coriolanus” is rated R largely for violence and some situations that young people may not understand.  A huge box office is hardly to be expected, but your critic predicts that Fiennes’ first attempt at directing himself will become a bit of an evergreen.

—30—

Coriolanus on Netflix

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