Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Coriolanus (2012) – Review

Review: Coriolanus is gritty, emotionally striking and relevant (both in the contemptuous interplay between the people and the government and the war-torn landscapes of the Volscian territories resembling current hostile zones across the world, but reminded me specifically of Bosnia). Based on William Shakespeare’s play of the same name, the film is about a Roman general Caius Martius, who is positioned to become Consul of Rome but is betrayed and exiled by the people after tribunes Brutus and Sicinius insight the people against him, preying on his less than personable demeanor and pride. Martius then travels to the Volscian capital Antium to seek out his greatest rival Aufidius to join forces and inflict revenge on those that banished him. Orson Welles is often thought of as cinema’s great Hollywood director of Shakespeare (though, his stage productions are generally thought to be far superior), but in modern cinema Kenneth Branagh has directed probably the best adaptations (staying mostly true to the words) with his Henry V (my favorite), Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet (and I also like the work of Trevor Nunn; his Twelfth Night is among my favorites as well). First time director and exalted actor Ralph Fiennes (who has played the character as well on the stage) takes a very interesting approach to the material – both staying true to the words and world of Shakespeare’s play and making the setting feel fresh and relevant to today’s world (socio-politically). It reminds me a lot of Richard Loncraine’s Richard III (though, his is set against WWII). Fiennes’s film feels like the recent slew of gritty Iraq War narratives (like Green Zone, The Hurt Locker and HBO’s Generation Kill, at least the war scenes, while the scenes within Rome very much reminded me of the short-lived but brilliant series Kings), which immediately gives the audience a through-line to connect and understand the world of the narrative. The social and political unrest resonates, even if the language of Shakespeare is not always accessible to all viewers. The aesthetic Fiennes uses also informs the emotional journey both of the characters and the audience. Being an actor and having a love of the material, Fiennes uses the camera often in close quarters to the actors creating an intense and emotionally volatile (and somewhat draining) tone. He wants each viewer to feel the pain that Martius feels. And for the most part, this is very successful. However, the film suffers a bit from a few issues. Most prominently and directly at the expense of Fiennes’s style for the narrative is there is no room for the audience to breath, no light material, no levity, just very intense and taxing emotional turmoil coupled with pacing that drags a bit (especially in the second half), which disengages a worn-out audience by the third act. Also, Fiennes has a bit of an issue with scale (and this is most likely due to budget constraints). His battle scenes, while feeling personal to the characters, do not seem to be part of a bigger battle or war. They are too personal in a way. There is not a sense that there is anything going on outside Martius’s platoon, but this is not the case based on the toll on the landscapes, the audience just never sees anything else happening in the battle outside of Martius. The scale of what Fiennes shows is just too small, and in turn makes the scenes feel awkward. This, however, is a minor issue in comparison to the slow pacing and lack of emotional downtime. Coriolanus is among the best modern adaptations of Shakespeare, and Fiennes is very ambitious with his vision. However, it is not quite the great film that it teases to be.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Ralph Fiennes will continue directing with his next project The Invisible Woman in 2013. He certainly has the skill and eye for telling very compelling visual stories; he just needs to master structure and pacing (which is by far the most challenging aspect of filmmaking). I look forward to his future directorial work. Ilan Eshkeri’s score for the film is very good (here is a sample), as it perfectly fits the tone and visual style Fiennes has created. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and production designer Ricky Eyres get the look for Fiennes’s world of the film perfectly. The juxtaposition of Rome and the crumbling trashy ghettos outside of its realm is just right, matching the emotional journey of the characters. Performance wise, this film has some very strong work. James Nesbitt is great as a meddling cowardly tribune (I just wanted him to get his comeuppance so much). Jessica Chastain works well as she plays Virgilia (Martius’s wife) as seemingly the polar opposite to Martius, so quiet and fragile (yet it is her moment of strength that contributes to his demise). Gerard Butler physically and visually worked as Martius’s most hated enemy, but his performance very forgettable. Lubna Azabal playing the First Citizen is full of hate and vengeful rage (as if she had created a full backstory to why she hated Martius so much outside of what the audience is shown). Brian Cox is good, and he tries to bring some levity to the film playing his character a bit light. His performance works but the overhanging tone engulfs him, which makes sense given his character’s fate. Vanessa Redgrave is fantastic as Volumnia (Martius's mother). She is brutal and controlling, and key to Martius's character. Fiennes playing Martius seems to put his whole soul into the performance, literally feeling the anguish, betrayal, distain, and hate. It is brilliant work.

Summary & score: The performances in Coriolanus are excellent. The aesthetics and style of the adaptation are excellent. But, the narrative structure is not nearly as tight as it needed to be. 7/10

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