Director: Ralph Fiennes
Major players: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave
Out of five? 3.5
I put my hands up from the start. I’m not familiar with Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and, until today, had neither read it nor seen it in any shape or form. So I went to my first screening at this year’s London Film Festival – also Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut – with about as open a mind as I could muster.
As the cinema filled up, two ladies took their seats several rows in front, one saying to the other, “It’s basically about a man having a nervous breakdown.” I couldn’t help but wonder if she was giving away the whole essence of the film.
Essentially, it traces the rise and self-destruction of Caius Martius, who acquires the name Coriolanus after a great military victory. Fiennes sets it in war-torn Eastern Europe, showing us at the outset an unpopular dictator presiding over a starving but easily manipulated people. But he has his redeeming features – his love for his young wife and son and his relationship with his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), even if the latter seems more than a little Oedipal.
But his latest victory tips him over the edge. He rages with loathing for his people, refuses to connect with them in any way, is banished and, despite a temporary truce with long-standing adversary Aufidius (a surprisingly good Gerard Butler), his self-destructive anger once again gets the better of him and he’s knifed to death by a group of soldiers. The parallels with Julius Caesar are obvious and perhaps they were two sides of the same coin. Caesar was popular and respected by the mob, but he was assassinated: Coriolanus wasn’t, and he met an almost identical end.
The modern setting, complete with its violent battle scenes, works well and the Shakespearean dialogue hardly seems out of place. Where it falls down, however, is in its use of 24 hour ‘news footage’ to link scenes and move the story along. It’s a technique that’s become all too common on screen and stage and, for me, is fast becoming a cliché. I could live with characters watching the story unfold on TV in their own homes, but using a real-life news reader to conduct ‘interviews’ simply bombed. Jon Snow spoke his Shakespeare well enough, but if his inclusion was intended to add credibility, it did just the opposite – and caused a few giggles among the audience.
That said, there’s lot that’s good about Fiennes’ first time in the director’s chair. The hand-held camera work in the battle and crowd scenes gives them a semi-documentary immediacy. The performances are consistently good: Fiennes, in particular, is excellent in the lead with outbursts of rage that make him look on the verge of spontaneous combustion. Towards the end of the film, with his shaved head and similarly coiffed gang around him, there’s more than a hint of Brando’s Colonel Kurtz.
So was it about a man having a nervous breakdown? Of course, I don’t know if the lady concerned was actually talking about the film. But if she wasn’t, she easily could have been.
Coriolanus doesn’t open officially in the UK until January of next year. It’s possibly not mainstream enough to get wide distribution but seek it out if you can. Despite some weaknesses, it’s certainly still worth a watch and brings The Bard to life in a way that could easily encourage more people to give him a try. And that, in my eyes, has got to be good.