Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes, 2011)
I’ll say it right up front: I’m a sucker for updated Shakespeare, those movies that Wm.Shak. purists wish had never been made. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet? I’m crazy for it. Tim Blake Nelson’s O, which transports Othello to a boarding school? Delicious. Ten Things I Hate About You, a Taming of the Shrew retelling that made a superstar out of the late Heath Ledger? Loved it. So it’s almost bred in the bone that I was going to adore Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, set in an alternate-world Rome where bread is scarce. It took a brief conversation with a friend who wasn’t as thrilled with it as I was for me to get a real handle on why I loved it as much as I did, but now I’ve got more insight—which, thankfully (or not, depending on your point of view), I can now share with you good people.
Plot: Caius Martius (played by Fiennes) is a Roman general, as we open held by the populace to be the bearer of the blame for the withholding of food stores. When confronted by a band of freedom fighters marching on the Central Distribution building, he expresses his contempt for the plebeians openly, while more diplomatic members of the government attempt to calm them. For his courage in facing the throng, Martius is named Coriolanus by Cominus, his commander, and his mother suggests he run for consul, an elected position. He bows to her wishes and does so; it seems he’s going to win, as well, but the folks from the first scene reappear, stire up another riot, and cause him to have another blowup that turns the popular tide against him and ends with his banishment. He leaves Rome and offers himself up to rival commander Aufidius (300‘s Gerard Butler) in exhange for the chance to lead an all-out assault on Rome.
Coriolanus was one of the Shakespeare plays we read aloud in high school. You can imagine how well that went over; I liked it a great deal, but it always struck me as very cerebral, very detached, intellectual and strategic. That made sense, given that that’s the mindset of military commanders (or, well, you’d think so) like Martius and Aufidius. Fiennes did not approach the material in that manner, however. I watched this in the same way I watched Willem Dafoe, playing Jesus, delivering the Sermon on the Mount in The Last Temptation of Christ; previous to seeing that scene, I had always envisioned the Sermon on the Mount being delivered in a bloodless monotone. (This has a lot to do with the various pastors I suffered as a child.) That was the first time I understood that perhaps it had been delivered with real passion. In the same way, Fiennes approached this material from a much more visceral standpoint, delivering it from the gut instead of from the head, as it were, and as a result I experienced Coriolanus in an entirely new way. (It also helps that this is the first time I’ve seen Gerard Butler in a film and seem him do something that actually looks like acting.) I was very impressed by this, and recommend it highly. *** ½
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