TIFF Review: Coriolanus

Coriolanus (2011, directed by Ralph Fiennes)

Never let it be said that Ralph Fiennes half-asses anything.

For his directorial debut, Fiennes figured it wasn't enough to bring one of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays to the big screen for the first time. Nope, that's not enough of a challenge. He also had to star in it, modernize it and stock it full of machine guns and media saturation, and go toe-to-toe with Vanessa Redgrave. Oh, and what the hell, let's prove to the world that Gerard Butler is a damn fine actor to boot.

If you don't know the play, there's probably a reason for that. It's not among Shakespeare's best: a Roman general is despised by the people for his heavy-handed methods of suppressing dissent but lionized for his victories against foreign enemies. When he returns in triumph and is put forward as consul, a couple of senators conspire against him and get him exiled, whereupon he joins up with his bitterest foe to take his revenge on the city and the people that rejected him. There's some dramatic meat on those bones, but what themes there are scuttling below the surface don't exactly carry the weight of a Lear or Hamlet.

At the same time though, picking a lesser-known play gives Fiennes as blank a slate as you can get for doing the Bard, and as an actor he takes full advantage. His Coriolanus is a military genius but politically tone-deaf, a pure bullet of a man who knows only one speed and one direction in which to live his life. As with all Shakespearean heroes his strengths and weaknesses are but two sides of the same coin, and both lead inexorably to his downfall.

The rest of the cast is hit and miss, although mostly hit. Redgrave is of course magnificent as Coriolanus' mother, Brian Cox is his typical gravelly self as his senatorial mentor, and Jekyll's James Nesbitt proves surprisingly adept as one of the schemers who turns the city against him. But the massive surprise is Butler as Aufidius, Coriolanus' sworn enemy and eventual patron. Making no attempt whatsoever to hide his Scottish accent, Butler dives into his role with a fury, matching Fiennes blow for blow and line for line in the early scenes and deftly planting the seeds for their eventual mutual respect and alliance. 300 may have made Butler a star, but this is the film that establishes him as an actor to be reckoned with.
Of the principal cast only Jessica Chastain comes up short, but to be fair she doesn't exactly have much to do as Coriolanus' wife.

Seriously though, if Butler doesn't do Macbeth sometime in the next 10 years or so where I can see it, I will never forgive him.

Fiennes' casting instincts might be superb, but his directing skills are still fairly rough. The modernization is interesting, but this is not McKellan's Richard III. It allows Fiennes to stage some suitably chaotic war scenes, have pundits spit out couplets as sound bites and add some pretty good running gags (the Roman news network is called 'Fidelis'), but in the end Coriolanus and Aufidius still have a knife fight, and winning the job of consul still involves pressing the flesh in an open air market. It comes off not so much as a 'the more things change' commentary as it does the screenplay running out of ideas on how to update some of the scenes. Fiennes leans too heavily on some shots, as basically every speech of the slightest length (especially his own) in tight close-up, and a few too many people walk away from the camera, out of focus and into a pool of light.

None of the problems are major though. Coriolanus is a solid debut for Fiennes behind the camera, a coming out party for Butler as a Serious Actor, and a fairly ripping good yarn. Any one of those is reason enough to go see it.

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