Within the opening scene, a lone figure ascends a graffiti stained staircase with the words ‘Fuck the rules’ boldly emblazoned in blood red paint. Rather than a statement of intent on the part of the director, it more aptly describes the social struggle at the heart of the story. As filmic adaptations of Shakespeare go, Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut finds itself somewhere between the gaudy, borderline-camp of Julie Taymor’s anachronistic Titus, the full contextual transposition afforded by Kurosawa’s Ran or Throne of Blood, and its staunch adherence to Shakespeare’s original script parallels Baz Luhrmann’s approach in Romeo + Juliet. While not the most daring or inventive transfer of a Shakespeare play to the silver screen, it is nevertheless an intelligently crafted, intense and thought provoking adaptation.
Ralph Fiennes and writer John Logan had the unenviable task of condensing one of Shakespeare’s longest plays, second only in line count to Hamlet, into a 122 minute runtime. Besides select editing, the moviemakers adopted TV-styled newscasts as a succinct expositional device. Transposing the setting into an eerie facsimile of the Balkans conflict, with Belgrade standing in for Rome and the Serbian Parliament Building as her Senate, means that such an approach isn’t at odds with the material. That said, it’s an inelegant solution to a complex problem. The constant switches from grainy faux-newsreel footage to Barry Ackroyd’s gritty cinematography, bringing to mind his previous work on The Hurt Locker and Green Zone, never truly gels and, at worst, as is the case when John Snow delivers a newscast in full Shakespearian diction, actually creates a certain level of dissonance.
However, despite the constant invocations of the Senate, Consuls, Romans, and Volsci, the film functions as a potent parallel for contemporary social-political issues. The early shots of rioting combined with the overarching theme of how even the powerful may someday fall, feels all too timely. Still, it can be difficult to gauge where the film’s sympathies lie. The citizens of Rome are a fickle and easily manipulated mob, the politicians conniving and scheming. Coriolanus himself veers wildly from sympathetic tragedy to contemptuous arrogance. He becomes a man hailed by the people, in spite of his contempt for them, and unable to be brought down by them, hated and loved for his militaristic nature, like many in the corridors of power today. Shakespeare’s pieces are oft reworked due to their ambiguous nature, with directors free to craft their own interpretations. However, having drawn such strong parallels between contemporary events, one cannot help feeling frustrated at the film’s inability, or unwillingness, to take a side.
Underpinning the film lies its strong central performances. Vanessa Redgrave in particular outshines even Fiennes, giving a staggeringly nuanced performance as Volumnia – a far cry from more traditionally sinister, controlling interpretations of the part. Considering the lengthy dialogue, Fiennes is due credit as a director for not only managing to have every conversation feel entirely naturalistic but in also having the major speeches of the piece be delivered with such a pace and energy as to be every bit as intense as the opening battles. That said, Fiennes doesn’t always convince as the commanding leader early on and feels more at ease portraying restrained fury as the frustrated and unwilling politician. Gerard Butler, on the other hand, appears to suffer from the opposite problem, playing the solider well but, when opposite Fiennes, the director’s previous experience in having played the role on stage back in 2000 has him completely outclassed.
When faced with a world ill at ease with his brash behaviour, Coriolanus asks if it would see him milder, false to his nature, instead of playing the man he is. I make no such demands of this work. It creates drive through its intensity and meaning through its depth. A remarkable work, not without fault, but, like Coriolanus himself, without fear of being other than what it is.
By Vitor de Magalhaes