Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Movie: Coriolanus (2011)

In the year-end glut of movies seeking awards, one or two titles always get lost. The latest victim: the modern-day adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.

Upfront, I confess that the movie represents my first serious exposure to the play. This Slate piece explores the unique place Coriolanus holds in the Shakespeare canon, including T. S. Eliot’s claim that it is “Shakespeare’s most assured artistic success.” Caius Martius is Rome’s most feared general, a man who does battle with soldiers he respects to protect a citizenry he holds in contempt. A particularly bloody victory over the Volscian army following the siege of Corioles gives Martius the new name of Coriolanus and entrĂ©e into the world of politics. But he refuses to curry favor with the masses, intending to govern the same way he marshaled his forces. Other politicians, fearing Coriolanus’ rise, stir up opposition to his appointment. The general goes into exile, then wreaks vengeance against the nation that banished him.

It’s a breathtakingly complex piece of writing, bereft of heroes and villains. Coriolanus is both admirable and monstrous, often simultaneously. Menenius, Coriolanus’ political mentor and the play’s most overtly calculating figure, has the Republic’s interests at heart, while the self-serving populist tribunes raise valid objections to granting Coriolanus power.

There are astonishing performances galore. Brian Cox’s beautifully modulated Menenius, James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson as the scheming tribunes, and an absolutely staggering Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia, the mother who made Coriolanus the man he is. Ralph Fiennes does impressive work in front of the camera in the lead role and behind it as director. The film is propulsive, taking full advantage of the Serbian locations to present a landscape steeped in ancient simmering hatreds. Speeches are captured on cell phone cameras, critical dialogue is put into the mouths of commentators on the Roman equivalent of Fox News. It’s a fleet and furious adaptation of the Bard. Here’s the trailer.