Some people have a real problem watching adaptations without having first read the source material. By and large, this doesn’t bother me. I do, however, have difficulty watching movies based on Shakespeare if I haven’t read the play. It’s not so bad with his comedies, because they’re often straightforward and those adaptations don’t change too much, but the tragedies are a different story. People really like to alter those, thinking that they have some new lens through which to interpret Shakespeare’s meaning. Criticism of Shakespeare movies, then, is often very much as adaptations. Is that entirely fair? I dunno, you feel like you should treat things as their own entities. Criticize primarily as a film or as a production of Shakespeare? I’ll try to do both.
The Plot: Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes) is a general in the Roman legion and damn, is he ever good at his job. Rome is in the midst of political unrest, famish, and war with the Volsces, led by Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). After a sweeping, single-handed victory in the city of Corioles, Martius is granted the ceremonial title Coriolanus, and his friends Menenius (Brian Cox) and Cominius (John Kani) put him on the fast track to political power. His main political enemies, Brutus (Paul Jesson) and Sicinius (James Nesbitt) plot against him.
These elements, as well as Coriolanius’ relationships with his mother (in this version Vanessa Redgrave) and wife (Jessica Chastain) all build together nicely in Shakespeare’s tragedy about a keen, straight-forward military man lost in the conniving world of government, and eventually brought to ruin. It sounds really good, right? Let Coriolanus be remembered as the Bard’s greatest anticlimax, though. Boy, did he ever fail to wrap things up well in this one. Ah, but who am I to criticize William Shakespeare?
Coriolanus marks Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut. It’s not unusual for actors to suddenly think, “Hey, I could probably direct.” Everybody does it. Certainly with Shakespeare, too, they tend to think they can act as well as direct. Be the next Olivier, ya know? That’s what Kenneth Branagh always wanted. In this case, I think Fiennes should have picked one or the other. I don’t think he handled either particularly well, though. Actually, he did a fine job acting, but was grossly miscast. Fiennes is a talented actor and he has some really fantastic experience under his belt, but his Coriolanus is far too simple.
In some ways, that does work. Caius Martius is a blunt instrument; he’s not a brilliant tactician, but rather just a good fighter. His solution to a problem is to bash it until it’s either fixed or too broken to bother with. So obviously, he’s entirely ill suited for politics. We feel a little bad for him in Fiennes’ incarnation, but not enough to really count him as a true Shakespearean tragic hero as he is in the play. In this version, it seems that his tragic flaw is being kind of dumb.
That having been said, I don’t think I would have preferred Fiennes exclusively as director. The most apparent directorial decision here, which could probably be attributed more to writer John Logan (Gladiator, Skyfall, Rango, The Last Samurai), is that the action has been updated to a more contemporary setting. Now, the nice thing about most Shakespeare plays is that they lend themselves well to any setting. You can take Macbeth and make Throne of Blood, set in medieval Japan. Or take Twelfth Night and put it in the Victorian era. Bam, not a problem. The only reason to update Shakespeare to a different time period or location, though, is either if the setting helps illuminate the play’s themes or vice versa. I’m going out on a limb here, but I think Fiennes’/Logan’s design was to make a statement about how out-of-touch contemporary politicians are, and also call attention to the divisions between military and civilian. I don’t think they really pulled that off. It’s not enough of an adaptation to do so. Logan doesn’t change the language or the physical setting. It’s still somehow Romans versus Volsces. This unwillingness to update the text to meet the progress of the setting hinders any chance the filmmakers had of successfully criticizing modern society, thus rendering the initial relocation of the action unnecessary. Shit, son, that sentence was the thesis statement of a research paper.
The new setting also produced some really questionable direction. All of the messengers and choruses in the original text are replaced by news programs. Now, there are a whole bunch of messengers and choruses in Coriolanus, which means that people watch a lot of TV in the movie. Way too much of the film is spent watching characters watching things. Furthermore, Fiennes’ employs a lot of shaky-cam. I think this was to mimic live, on location news programs, but it got irritating fast. Every time he did use a tripod (which I could count on one hand) it was nice and refreshing. The composition in these shots was so nice that he should have had steady-cam the entire way through.
There was another inherent problem in not updating the language. Of course, it doesn’t agree with the temporal setting or the costumes or anything like that, but this other problem is much more severe than that. Shakespearean English is hard. It doesn’t sound like how we talk today. A lot of people, then, have trouble delivering lines of Shakespeare’s plays while simultaneously acting. They concentrate so much on getting the words and rhythms right, that their performances tend to feel forced and unnatural. All of the great Shakespearean actors, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, even Kenneth Branagh to an extent, understood the language on such a deep level as to make it sound fluid and comfortable. They were so adept in this that they were able to inspire the rest of the cast to match their levels of aptitude. Ralph Fiennes isn’t quite there. The performances are all over the place, and some actors are just clearly way more comfortable with the language than others. Jessica Chastain does well with the few lines she has; Gerard Butler kind of trips over some of the words while trying to decide what accent to have; Brian Cox doing Shakespeare felt kind of wrong; Vanessa Redgrave was… a little weird… Surprisingly, I thought James Nesbitt did the best job. You’ll probably know him best as Bofur, one of the better-developed dwarves from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Skimming his IMDb page, I see no evidence of other Shakespeare films. I don’t know what stage experience he has, but more than anyone, his performance felt natural. Kudos to him.
In the end, though, Fiennes’ Coriolanus is as blunt as its titular protagonist. Just as Caius Martius is ill suited for politics, this film was ill suited for…well, for development. It was a careless adaptation, and one gets the impression that no one spent enough time with source material before making the movie.