Ralph Fiennes Modernizes Shakespeare in ‘Coriolanus’

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CHICAGO – The plays of William Shakespeare, influencing culture and morality for over 400 years, continue to open themselves up to new interpretations and settings. Ralph Fiennes directs and stars in a film version adaptation of “Coriolanus,” set against the modern day machinations of politics and war.

This is a sharp and well acted re-imagining of the material, given the costumes and media treatment of today, while maintaining the rhythm and prose poetry that distinguishes Shakespeare. The highlight is the performances, especially the conflicted soul of Ralph Fiennes as the title character, with Vanessa Redgrave adding support and guilt as his mother. Fiennes as director coaxes a dark paranoia out of the story, targeting government in-fighting and homeland deception straight out of this morning’s headlines.

The citizens of Rome are going through a food crisis. Cupboards and stores are bare, and grain reserves are guarded by the army directed by General Martius Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes). The mobs call for his blood, but he protected by a government official named Menenius (Brian Cox). The crisis is interrupted by an invasion by the nearby Volscian Army, led by a Coriolanus rival named Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler).

Ralph Fiennes (Coriolanus) and Gerard Butler (Aufidius) in ‘Coriolanus’
Ralph Fiennes (Coriolanus) and Gerard Butler (Aufidius) in ‘Coriolanus’
Photo credit: The Weinstein Company

Coriolanus emerges as the hero of the conflict, ending an battle with a hand-to-hand combat with Aufidius. This turns the tide in Rome, and he is greeted in victory by his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) and wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain). Menenius sponsors the general for a senate seat, which revives some anti-Coriolanus sentiment. His angry retort towards the opposition causes a banishment from the country. Severed tragically from homeland and family, Coriolanus turns to his opponent Aufidius to get revenge on Rome.

Fiennes is the great surprise in this one, both in performance and as a director. He creates the essence of the ultimate soldier, one who believes in what he commanded to do, so much so that he is made the scapegoat twice, during the food crisis and when he is asked to serve as a senator. His rise from both these ashes is filtered eminently through Fiennes, handling the Shakespearean prose with a precision that interacts naturally with the modern tone.

The supporting cast adds more spice to the interpretation by using Shakespeare’s drama to accent the very contemporary emotional climate. Vanessa Redgrave’s mother is reminiscent of a similar character in “The Manchurian Candidate.” She is homeland first, son second, unless of course the relationship serves the homeland. Ubiquitous actress Jessica Chastain fulfills the wife role with her angular directness, and the politicians played by Brian Cox, James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson could give the current Republican field a run in their power mongering, except the movie players have a better speechwriter in the Bard.

How interesting it was, through the direction of Fiennes, to experience the Shakepeare rhythm through the present day gauze of television, megaphones and fanciful halls of power. The language fits here just as it fit in the original ancient Rome backdrop, with the realization of more the violence of modern war and mass communication. It was particularly remarkable that the television talking heads were doing commentary through that particular language, in opposition to the regular directive to keep it at a sixth grade level.

Jessica Chastain (Virgilia) and Vanessa Redgrave (Volumnia) in ‘Coriolanus’
Jessica Chastain (Virgilia) and Vanessa Redgrave (Volumnia) in ‘Coriolanus’
Photo credit: The Weinstein Company

What Shakespeare gives, however, he can take away. Fiennes does a good job of keeping the action matching the dialogue, but like any juxtaposition of old and new, some of the lines may need a rewinding. The attention deficit disorder of these times just doesn’t interact with 16th century stage prose like it should. Beware the eyes on text screens while in the theater.

Honoring William Shakespeare, with a nod towards the muck of politics today, is the combination that makes ‘Coriolanus’ work. It’s as if Old Bill was predicting the future by just milking the redundant past of jealousy, jingoism, war and government.

“Coriolanus” continues its limited release on January 20th. See local listings for show times and theaters. Featuring Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Jessica Chastain, Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox. Screenplay by John Logan. Directed by Ralph Fiennes. Rated “R”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Senior Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2012 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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