Thursday, 19 January 2012

CORIOLANUS - Stunning Shakespeare screen adaptation from Ralph Fiennes is bloody, blistering and topical. Most of all, though, it's just plain bloody COOL!

Coriolanus (2011)
dir. Ralph Fiennes
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox,
Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain, James Nesbitt, John Kani, Paul Jesson


By Greg Klymkiw

"What's the matter, you dissentious rogues
That rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
Make yourselves scabs?"
(I.i.150-152) - William Shakespeare, Coriolanus
Coriolanus: My name is Caius Marcius,
who hath done to thee particularly...
Great hurt and mischief;
thereto witness may
My surname, Coriolanus.

Butt-head: Huh huh huh. He said, "Anus."
Beavis: Coriolanus. Anus. Oh, yeah.
Butt-head: Uh, yeah. Anus.
Beavis: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I heard it, too. Anus.
Coriolanus: The extreme dangers, and the drops of blood
Shed for my thankless country are requited
But with that surname -- a good memory.

Butt-head: What a dork.
- With Apologies to William Shakespeare and Mike Judge

Ralph Fiennes, easily one of our greatest living actors, makes an impressive feature film directorial debut with this action-packed Paul (Bloody Sunday, United 93, The Bourne Supremacy) Greengrass-like political thriller. That it's a superb, vibrant and topical adaptation of William Shakespeare's great tragedy Coriolanus is a double-layer of icing on the cake. It's an extraordinarily riveting feast for the mind and senses.

The phenomenal screenplay adaptation by John Logan (Hugo, Rango, Sweeney Todd, The Aviator) retains the glorious iambic pentameter styling of Shakespeare's rich dialogue (with de rigueur, though always exceptional cuts to the Bard of Avon's text) and sets the action in a contemporary (or very near future) Rome. Given the current financial crisis worldwide (and in particular, the utter mess Italy is currently mired in), as well as the war-zone that our world has become thanks to George W. Bush, Logan's script and Fiennes's first-rate direction of it, delivers a movie that's not only relevant to the here and now, but is proof-positive of the universal qualities inherent in great writing - no matter where and when it's written. (This movie, along with Roman Polanski's Macbeth is a sure-fire way to get any doubting-Thomas high school student - or, for that matter, just about anyone - to devour Shakespeare ravenously.)

The film is set in a Rome that has degenerated into the sort of fractioned warfare that plagued (and continues to plague) many of Europe's Balkan countries. Caius Martius Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes) is a great warrior who has brought glory to Rome in a battle with a breakaway revolutionary force led by Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). Loyal to the State to a fault, he's not done himself any favours by exerting brute force on his own people who, during the war, have been starving while stores of grain have been guarded fiercely by the forces of Coriolanus.

When our hero is offered the position of consul, he maintains his stance as a warrior, refusing to play any political games. Unable to "lower" himself to currying favour with Rome's populace, several treasonous power-hungry tribunes and senators seize this opportunity to slant things against our hero and force him into exile. Burning with rage, Coriolanus joins forces with his previous nemesis Aufidius (an equally great warrior) and together they march on Rome, decimating everything in their path.

This is quite a magnificent picture. The battle scenes are unremittingly chaotic, violent and alternately sickening and exciting. Fiennes makes excellent use of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker, Green Zone) whose whirly-gig camera captures the battlefields of both the war zone and the political arena. Veteran editor Nicolas Gaster keeps things moving with verve while the superb percussion-heavy score by Ilan Eshkeri (Kick-Ass, Centurion) adds drive, emotional/dramatic context and flavour to the proceedings.

Blending newsreel footage with TV roundtable interviews and straight-up drama, Shakespeare's period dialogue never feels incongruous with the contemporary setting and storytelling techniques. Fiennes elicits phenomenal performances from his key cast - notably the great Brian Cox as the loyal, but doomed Menenius and an astounding Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia, the manipulative Mom of Coriolanus.

Given that he's both behind the camera and in-front of it for so much of the film's running time, his own work as an actor never suffers. It's great looking at Fiennes's aquiline facial features and listening to him spit out his lines as if his life depended on it.

Cast-wise, the revelation here is probably Gerard Butler. I've always had a soft spot for him as an actor - especially in his kick-butt action pictures like 300 and RocknRolla, but as Fiennes' nemesis-turned-ally, he acquits himself with skill and power. His explosive line readings as Tullus Aufidius knocked me on my ass and I loved it when his Scottish brogue kicked in on overdrive.

The movie is full of great touches, but one of the more powerful moments is when Fiennes has his head shaved into full-on warrior-dome and all his men follow suit. They become an army of skinheads - bent on bloodlust, pillage and vengeance. This is what happens when men of action are betrayed by weaselly bureaucrats and it ain't a purty sight.

I had a few minor quibbles with Fiennes's mise-en-scene. While the Greengrass-like herky-jerkiness is well handled and quite appropriate for much of the action, there's a great moment where Coriolanus demands mega-mano-a-mano with Tullus Aufidius. The movie primes us for one major kick-ass head-stomper of a fight between Fiennes and Butler. Alas, where Fiennes errs as a director is continuing the herky-jerky rather than trusting in the clearly superb fight choreography.

There's also one unfortunate God's-eye-view longshot of the market when Coriolanus is led to address the "rabble". Given the care taken to make the multitudes look old-movie-style gargantuan, we unfortunately see less people on the periphery than we should. Nitpicky, yes - but so much of the movie is so good, less-than-stellar moments stick out like sore-thumbs.

Finally though, Coriolanus rocks bigtime! We get a great play rendered magnificently by a first-rate cast and one setpiece after another to remind us of the urgency, importance and magic of movies - and most of all, that of William Shakespeare.

Coriolanus is nothing if not cool, and it sure isn't nothing and it's most certainly cool.

"Coriolanus" is playing theatrically in most major cities in North America and is presented in Canada via D Films.