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Coriolanus - DVD Review

Coriolanus

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

GIVEN his love for all things Shakespeare, it’s hardly surprising that Ralph Fiennes should have chosen to tackle one of the Bard’s plays for his directorial debut.

But what is surprising is that the actor has chosen such a complex play and adopted such a bold, adventurous approach. Coriolanus is by no means an easy or an obvious choice to test those filmmaking skills but Fiennes does so with considerable flare and passion.

A contemporary re-telling of the Roman epic, Coriolanus follows the fortunes of a war hero turned politician whose abrasive personality does not sit well with the masses, and whose support he requires to properly control ‘Rome’.

Refusing to pander to them, however, Coriolanus is eventually de-throned and forced to live as an outcast, whereupon he reunites with an enemy to take back power forcefully, placing him at odds with his own family who offer Rome’s only hope of resistance.

Fiennes was inspired to make Coriolanus because of the parallels he saw with modern day headlines and although set in ‘a place calling itself Rome’, the backdrop is recognisable to anyone paying close attention to headlines.

Hence, to give it extra edge, he has also employed cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, of The Hurt Locker fame, to lend the combat sequences an immediacy, while allowing screenwriter John Logan to give some of Shakespeare’s text more contemporary resonance, while remaining faithful to the classic tongue.

Having played Coriolanus on the stage already, Fiennes is completely at ease with the central character, tapping into the complexity of a battle-hardened leader who insists on sticking by his principals no matter what.

His sense of hurt, therefore, at being shunned by those he spilled his blood for is expertly revealed in the silent looks of anguish that follow, while his gritty determination to take back power, even if it means uniting with a former enemy, is utterly focused and unsparing.

But while this is undoubtedly Fiennes show in most ways, the actor-director-producer still surrounds himself with a formidable and sometimes even surprising cast who all get the opportunity to shine.

Primary among these is Vanessa Redgrave, utterly formidable as the mother of Coriolanus, whose belated influence upon her son proves decisive and uncovers a dramatic Achilles heel. It’s great to see an actress of Redgrave’s calibre being allowed to properly flex those muscles on-screen again.

Strong, too, is Gerard Butler’s enemy-turned unlikely ally Tullus, tapping into the depths of the character’s fury and duplicity, as well as Brian Cox as the politically astute but weary Menenius, James Nesbitt as the scheming Tribune and Lubna Azabal as the feisty First Citizen Tamora.

Given the complexity of its themes and various twists and turns, Coriolanus is an often gruelling watch that requires your complete attention for over two hours. But given its contemporary relevance and the quality of its performances, it’s gripping, passionate stuff.

And while Fiennes has already proven beyond doubt what a terrific actor he is, he’s no slouch in the director’s chair either, turning in several sequences that live long in the memory (an early assault, the fate of Menenius, a confrontation between Coriolanus and Volumnia).

What’s more, he knows when to let things play cinematically and when to allow them to drift into the more theatrical, providing his actors with the perfect stage upon which to express their lines and convey their emotions. In that sense, it’s a lesson to anyone studying Shakespeare.

That’s not to say the film isn’t without flaws. It is very earnest and not all of the contemporary scenes feel as though they fit with the classic nature of the writing, while Fiennes sometimes loses sight of one or two of his co-stars (Jessica Chastain, for example).

But in the main, this is a commendable, impressive effort and a valiant attempt at both paying homage to the enduring greatness of Shakespeare while making him relevant to modern audiences once again.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 122mins
UK Blu-ray & DVD Release: June 4, 2012