The Reel Deal
A Reel Deal Film Review
Film Insight by Tyler Malone
Reel Rating: 4.5 out of 5
“DOWN TO A FIENNES ART”
Even lesser Shakespeare is brilliant–which is why we’re still making movies out of even his more obscure works four centuries after he died. I assume that’s a relatively uncontroversial point.
But Coriolanus, though certainly lesser known to the general public, should not be considered a lesser work. After all, the poet T. S. Eliot proclaimed in his essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” that it was a superior piece of artwork to Hamlet. The literary critic and uber-Shakespearean Frank Kermode agreed, calling Coriolanus “probably the most fiercely and ingeniously planned and expressed of all the tragedies.” It’s what you’d call a fan favorite. It’s the b-side of a single that fans gripe should have been the a-side. And now, finally, it’s been given an interesting reappraisal in the form of this filmic translation, directed by the great Ralph Fiennes (who also plays the titular character).
The reason the play is so important in Shakespeare’s oeuvre is that in an entire career of writing plays that showcased the bard’s negative capability (that is when a man is capable of being in mysteries, uncertainties, doubts), it is perhaps Coriolanus that manages to be the most nuanced, the most contradictory, and thus the most complex. It is steeped in mysteries, uncertainties and doubts. The great Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, when trying to rewrite Coriolanus, discovered that many of the places he wanted to push the play, the play was already pushing itself. Every thread Brecht wanted to pull at was already unraveling itself. It is this ambiguousness of the play, as it is always the ambiguousness in Shakespeare’s plays, that makes it most suitable for re-evaluation and adaptation. They welcome being looked at from new angles.
Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus feels both classically Shakespearean, and also completely modern. It looks at the play from contemporary angles, while still allowing Shakespeare to be Shakespeare. Without belaboring the parallels, this film feels very conscious of the current political climate. Even though it takes place in a fantasy Rome–that simultaneously seems of the future, of the present, and of the past–it actually feels most reminiscent of Baghdad (which also seems to me a city of the future, of the present, and of the past). This parallel is heightened by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s faux-documentary-style realism–the same frantic camerawork he brought to Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker and Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone. In the context of our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Shakespeare’s work finds new dialectics to take up, even though Fiennes and writer John Logan stay relatively close to Shakespeare’s original text. And though it was filmed before the following protest movements, the movie also remarkably seems in dialogue with the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements. But that’s the thing about Shakespeare, you can take him anywhere, and he always finds new, ever more captivating things to say.
And when he’s handled with care, as he is here, the results can often be revelatory. Of course, I sometimes get a little annoyed when anyone modernizes Shakespeare, because they inevitably have to find ridiculous reasons for people with guns to suddenly lose the guns in specific scenes so that they can have an altercation up close. These can feel so contrived that they pull the viewer out of the world of the movie. Also, when some scenes focus on news media, like they do extensively in this version of Coriolanus, it then seems unrealistic when major plot points revolve around people being unable to get news of certain goings-on. But those slight annoyances aside, the translation to a transmogrified modern day works.
Fiennes, with the help of other fine actors (including Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave, and Jessica Chastain), creates a movie worth watching, and worth discussing. And thus he finally gives Shakespeare’s Coriolanus the recognition it has always deserved–as one of the great Shakespearean tragedies, if not the great Shakespearean tragedy (according to Eliot, Kermode, and yours truly).
Coriolanus is a film directed by Ralph Fiennes, written by John Logan, and based on the play by William Shakespeare. It stars Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave and Jessica Chastain. A banished hero of Rome allies with a sworn enemy to take his revenge on the city.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of The Weinstein Co.
Design by Jillian Mercado
Press Photo from Coriolanus, Photography Courtesy of The Weinstein Co.