Movie Review: Fiennes’ updated, riveting ’Coriolanus’

Coriolanus has a PR problem.

A Roman war hero, he proves ill-equipped for politics, far too proud to flatter the fickle masses. In a series of what would today be termed public relations disasters, Coriolanus rapidly plummets from Rome’s most decorated defender, to its banished son.

Of the many politicians we’ve seen undone by scandal and mismanaged crises, we’ve not yet seen one dare try to fight a media storm by calling the common people “measles.”

Leaders with deaf ears and publics that sway capriciously are eternal themes that certainly reverberate in today’s strife-filled times. It’s no wonder Ralph Fiennes saw fit to transport Shakespeare’s tragedy (not one of his highest regarded) from its fifth century BC setting to a contemporary world.

Any production of “Coriolanus” ultimately comes down to the handling of the relationship between Coriolanus and the crowds. Shakespeare — who detested nothing so much as a mob — made it a tricky drama, with a largely unsympathetic protagonist.

George Bernard Shaw considered “Coriolanus” Shakespeare’s greatest comedy. T.S. Eliot called it, along with “Antony and Cleopatra,” his “most assured artistic success.” Bertolt Brecht considered Coriolanus a kind of fascist and interpreted the play as a class struggle.

In Fiennes’ hands, it’s a thoroughly intense and vivid drama without an easy political reading.

The film opens in what it labels “a place called Rome” where a food crisis is causing protesters to march on a grain mill. The general Coriolanus (Fiennes) has suspended civil liberties and brought out the riot police to quell the protesters, for whom he has no sympathy.

“Who deserves greatness deserves your hate,” the bald Coriolanus in fatigues, sniggers at them.

Coriolanus, a proud soldier, saves the same townspeople from the rival Volsces. (In Shakespeare, this is a war between city-states, which transfers awkwardly in a modern telling.) In a fierce street battle, he single-handedly turns them back, killing in video-game style.

Coriolanus, never exactly a cheerful chap, turns into a downright monster on the battlefield, where he exhorts his soldiers to “make you a sword of me.” The sight of Fiennes, his head blood-covered and eyes murderously steely, is one of the film’s most remarkable — and a sure rival in fright to Fiennes’ “Harry Potter” villain Voldemort.

A hero after the battle, Coriolanus is spurred to be made the powerful Consul. His mother Volumnia (a startlingly graceful and poised Vanessa Redgrave) urges him on. But Coriolanus doesn’t have a political bone in his body, which spurs conspirators Brutus (James Nesbitt) and Sicinius (Paul Jesson) to rouse the public against him.

The wise operator Menenius (played excellently by Brian Cox as a kind of campaign manager) tries to keep Coriolanus “on message,” but the situation spirals out of control, eventually leading to the unthinkable: Coriolanus, branded a traitor to the people, is banished. He takes up arms with his mortal enemy, the Volscian leader Tullus Aufidius (a fine Gerard Butler, who incidentally would also make an interesting Coriolanus, himself).

All of this is portrayed like a media storm, with wall-to-wall TV news coverage and opposition fanned in the blogosphere.

The gritty first half of the film is largely shot handheld, which, while surely a fitting style for a film about war and political tumult, grows tiresome and overused. There’s a feeling of rushing and of some clunky contemporizing.

Fiennes plays Coriolanus with all-consuming rage, which overshadows the character’s other qualities. While he does seem, like Hamlet, displaced from his natural role, Coriolanus’ humility doesn’t quite come through.

The pace of the camera and the storytelling improves considerably in the second half, or the play’s fourth and fifth acts. The whole production finds its balance and Fiennes’ performance grows fuller, finally bursting forth in a late rush of sympathy at the end.

It’s moments like these (and there are many others, too, thanks to the excellent ensemble) that make Fiennes’ “Coriolanus” linger in the mind. The play has been significantly but artfully trimmed by John Logan’s screenplay, which preserves Shakespeare’s language.

And the name calling. Oh, the name calling! “Coriolanus” is stuffed to the gills with some of the best trash-talking you’re likely to hear. Much of it is Coriolanus spewing scorn at the crowds: “You fragments!” he calls them.

Surely, Fiennes has given us one of the most exhilarating moments at the movies this year, too, in his late showdown with Aufidius. Fiennes stalks him with unrepentant, electrifying indignation, sneering “Boy!” repeatedly.

Somewhere, Harry Potter is shaking.

“Coriolanus,” a Weinstein Company release, is rated R for some bloody violence. Running time: 122 minutes. Three stars out of four.

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