Shakespeare is hard. There’s no two ways about it. Even onstage, you have to get everyone in the cast on board with the same interpretation or the play does not flow. The rhythm, cadence, accents, and style have to fit together or it’s a mess.
When you bring the Bard’s work to the big screen, the challenge is even harder. Shakespeare’s plays are practically glued to the boards. Almost all of the action happens offstage. You might get a sword fight here or there, but all the real war, assault, confrontation, death, and mayhem happens in the wings. They’re plays of reaction to major events rather than major events that drive reactions.
Coriolanus, one of the less produced works, could make for a great feature film adaptation. It’s comparatively short, could easily be done on a shoestring budget, and relies on a strong ensemble cast to get its point across. It’s a play about the will of the people against the will of the state and those who choose to manipulate the balance.
Sadly, Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut Coriolanus is not that film. The casting is suitable, if not spectacular. The short-tempered soldier Coriolanus will tear through you (as he should) with Fiennes’ performance. Gerard Butler and Jessica Chastain are fine foils for war and civility in their work as Aufidius and Virgilia. The ensemble of concerned citizens and the cavalcade of powerless politicians all do what they need to do, with notable but thankless work from Lubna Azabal and Brian Cox.Vanessa Redgrave, however, feels like she was born to play Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother. In this adaptation, her harsh militaristic attitude is supported by being a high level military strategist and former soldier herself. She ravages the movie. No one survives scene work with her because she outclasses their performance in every way. If the film was called Volumnia and focused on Redgrave’s performance, it would be a masterpiece*.
It’s not. This is the over-bloated story of Coriolanus. Fiennes does the popular (but rather tired) modern military dress adaptation of Shakespeare. Everyone is a soldier, a rebel, a politician, or a terrorist. Images are copied straight from the news footage of US soldiers taking Baghdad in April 2003. Long and bloody battle scenes do nothing to engage the viewer or expand the role of Coriolanus.
We know from his words that he is a soldier fighting against enemies rather than a man of the people. There is no surprise in seeing him take down entire buildings by himself while earning scars he won’t show. It’s especially pointless when the makeup department covered his face and head in curvy scars that actually take away from the impact of the coerced rebellion against Coriolanus’ installation in politics.Coriolanus is at its best when it is simple. The story comes alive when everyone is in a self-contained area and delivers their lines as a working ensemble. This is the tense material that makes the play so worthwhile. Too bad it’s a rarity in this adaptation.
Coincidentally, these are the only scenes where every actor follows the same cadence and approaches the material in the same way. They come alive not just because of the content but because of the cohesion. Shakespeare taken line by line in isolation is not Shakespeare; it’s random flourishes of linguistic skills with no point beyond showing off. Taken together, the unity of the language comes out. You recognize the recurring and evolving images and devices of the text and use them to inform your interpretation of the performance.
Even a die hard Shakespeare fan will be disappointed in this adaptation of Coriolanus. Pure Shakespeare will never be an action/epic/thriller in the modern sense. If you want to turn Shakespeare into a boom-splosion masterpiece, translate the text to modern English and have at it. If you want to turn Shakespeare into a working film, let your actors do the heavy lifting.
Thoughts? I’ll start. I think the only reason Vanessa Redgrave was not nominated for Best Supporting Actress is that anyone who received the screener and wasn’t reviewing the film shut it off long before she first shows up onscreen. What do you think? Sound off below.
*Mine! I claimed it. You can’t have it.