The work of Shakespeare has often proved useful for directors who are looking to put a ready-made story on to the cinema screen. Now it is the turn of first-timer Ralph Fiennes (a man who is no stranger to the work of Shakespeare), with Coriolanus.
Coriolanus may not be one of the Bard’s most beloved plays, but it is more relevant than ever and Fiennes has prior experience, having played Coriolanus before on stage. Shakespeare’s play tells the story of Caius Martius Coriolanus (Fiennes), a Roman general who is banished by his people, but returns with his nemesis, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), to seek revenge on Rome.
You’ve got red on you
The performances are fantastic throughout. Fiennes is over the top (calling someone “boy” has never sounded more derogatory), but this works perfectly. Gerard Butler finally gets to do some acting, possibly for the first time in his career, but is underused. The performances from all involved, especially Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’ mother and James Nesbitt as a scheming politician, really drag Coriolanus up, when they really shouldn’t need to.
Jessica Chastain also stars in Coriolanus. Her 748th film of the year.
Fiennes has updated the action to the modern-day, which means we have conversations made over web-cams and Jon Snow doing breaking news reports in iambic pentameter. It’s an admirable attempt at bringing Shakespeare in to the 21st century, but you can’t help but feel that all of these televisions, guns and laptops just don’t belong.
The problem is that Fiennes has stuck too rigidly to Shakespeare’s original text. The story should be cinematic, but in its original form it does not translate well to the screen. Instead it trundles along from one thing to the next, hoping that because it is Shakespeare it will all work when it’s put together.
This means that the actions of some of the characters don’t really make sense and some characters just disappear without reason. The people of Rome are also particularly fickle. They are a like a child picking petals off a daisy (we love Coriolanus, we love him not, we love him, we love him not…).
The limited number of characters also makes the film feel much too small-scale. This should be a big, epic story about the fall of a great general. Instead, whenever there is a crowd protesting against Coriolanus, we see the same faces every time. This would be fine on a stage, but on film it just seems odd.
If the whole of Rome are so against him, why are there only 20 protestors? News footage from other, real world events, are used to make up for the lack of numbers (and presumably lack of budget), but this can’t disguise the fact that what works on stage does not work on a cinema screen.
If Fiennes had been less reverent towards Shakespeare’s play and instead took the story and molded it in to something that worked better as a film, he would have been on to a real winner. Coriolanus ends up feeling like a missed opportunity, however. It is a film made by someone who wanted to do justice to Shakespeare, but inadvertently made their own film suffer as a result.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time you wish you paid more attention in school when you were studying Shakespeare.
Take a Drink: whenever Gerard Butler is on screen.
Drink a Shot: whenever there is a protest or angry mob of any kind.