December 11, 2011

MOVIES: Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes, 2011)

Coriolanus is not one of the more popular Shakespeare plays, and I think this was the first time I'd seen a Shakespeare movie without having first read the play, or at least a summary of the story. So I was a little nervous about whether I'd be able to follow things, but Ralph Fiennes has assembled such a good cast that even if you don't follow every single line, the gist and emotional thrust of the scene always comes through, and the story's very easy to follow.

Fiennes has updated the story to the present day, and we begin in "a place calling itself Rome," which is not quite our Rome. The opening scenes feel rather like Shakespeare's take on the 99%/1% political rhetoric of our day; the masses are starving, and there are riots throughout Rome, notably at the Central Grain Depot. The people place the blame largely on Gaius Martius (Fiennes), a general who holds the masses in contempt.

Martius leads a successful defense against an invasion from the neighboring Volscians, with his principal victory coming at the city of Corioles; for this victory, the Senate confers on him the honorific "Coriolanus." They are prepared to name Martius the new consul -- ruler of the city -- but tradition requires that their choice be ratified by the people, and Martius's inability (and unwillingness) to communicate with them leads to serious conflict.

The cast includes Gerard Butler as Martius's longtime rival, the Volscian general Aufidius; Vanessa Redgrave as his mother, Volumnia; and the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain as his wife, Virgilia. Best of all is Brian Cox as Martius's principal political ally, the senator Menenius, who is particularly delightful in the early going, when he's the ultimate glad-handing schmoozer; he's just as good, though, when his story moves into darker territory.

Coriolanus is a marvelous war story, a tale of a man brought down by his pride and snobbery, and if it's not quite as compelling a story as those of the major tragedies, Fiennes makes as entertaining a movie of it as one could want.

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