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Movie Review: Coriolanus

Posted by gck Saturday, February 4, 2012

He carries noise, and behind him he leaves tears;
Death, that dark spirit, in’s nervy arm doth lie;
Which, being advanc’d, declines, and then men die.
-William Shakespeare, Coriolanus Act II scene i

Before the film, SIFF got someone from Seattle Shakespeare Company to give an introduction. One of the things he said was that the plays of Shakespeare, like a lot great literature, is both timeless and timely. This is how a story set in 500 BC and written in the 1600’s can feel relevant and important in today’s age. Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s least commonly performed plays, but it’s an appropriate time right now for a small resurgence. My original plan was to read the play, see it performed, and watch the film. I saw the play last month and watched the film today, but I’m still only about halfway through the play. Still, the part that I read definitely made a difference in the other two experiences, and I wish I could have made the effort to finish it beforehand.

UK, 2011
Watched: in theater, SIFF
Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5)

I’m used to SIFF Cinema being on the empty side, but the theater actually had pretty good attendance this time. It seemed to be the reverse audience of a chick flick… mostly guys and some girls dragged along with them. A good number of the guys did not look like the type to be watching Shakespeare. But who am I to judge, right? But recalling the trailer (that I’ve seen SO many times), it makes sense – to people who haven’t read anything about the film, it looks like a mainstream action movie. Though the lines in the trailer are indeed from the play, they show such short passages of speech that it’s not obvious at all whether or not the dialogue in the play will be Shakespearean. It is. Looking at current Rotten Tomatoes ratings right now, 93% of critics like it, but only 66% of the audience did. And the one reviewer who didn’t like it says, “No more Shakespeare until we agree it needs to be translated into real English, please.”

film trailer

It’s a difficult task to translate this sort of play to appeal to the modern audience, but I think they did a reasonably good job in this version. Television is used marvelously throughout the film to show “breaking news” (events like the Volsces attacking Rome or the plebians protesting) and to contain some of the scenes; for example: the scene where two officers are discussing Coriolanus’ bid for consul is portrayed as a television talk show, and it works perfectly. Overall, even if a viewer didn’t understand most of the language, he would still know what was going on.

I don’t really have the intention of getting into reviews of the plays I see because performances are temporary things. That means my review won’t be that useful when the run is done, and it also means that I won’t be able to see it again if I miss something the first time around. So I would prefer to immerse myself into the experience and not be caught up in how I want to review it. But in this case, it’s interesting to make comparisons between the performance I saw and the film I watched.

Therese Diekhans as Volumnia, Peter A. Jacobs as Menenius Agrippa,
and David Drummond as Caius Martius Coriolanus, photo courtesy of
John Ullman

If I could have one wish for a change in the performance, it would have been for the group of citizens to feel more powerful. Of course, this is more difficult to do with a small cast, but the power and danger of the masses didn’t seem as real when it was just four people chanting in unison. In the film, the citizens had power. It was particularly relevant when they were clashing with the military, bringing to mind current events and news footage from Egypt, Libya, and other countries. The protests over the grain shortage (haves vs. the have-nots) bears an obvious similarity to the Occupy Wall Street movement. However, as is commonly noted, Shakespeare doesn’t seem to be picking sides with this play. Although the outrage of the masses seems legitimate at the beginning, we eventually see how easily they change their collective mind and have a little more sympathy for how Coriolanus feels about the public, even if we’re a bit disgusted about how he expresses it.

The place where I feel that the performance did better than the film was in the character of Coriolanus. I might be alone in feeling this, but he didn’t seem much like the heroic warrior in the film, more like an angry, slightly insane mommy’s boy. The reason for this is in how much they cut out of the battle of Corioles. It doesn’t show how badly they were losing at first and how Coriolanus’ motivation was what caused the victory. It doesn’t show the end of the battle, when he generously declines the spoils and leaves it to be split among the soldiers instead. It’s already hard to like this character in the play, and he’s even less likeable in the film. It doesn’t help that an angry, bald-headed Ralph Fiennes causes me to think of Voldemort.

Both the performance and the film did a little exploration of the homoerotic undertones in the relationship between Coriolanus and his enemy, Titus Aufidius. I dunno. It’s definitely written into the text, but to me, it seems more of something that is thrown in as a concept than a realistic part of the plot. I mean, can you imagine if Osama bin Laden showed up at George Bush’s house and Bush said, “Dude, seeing you here is even better than the first time I had sex with my wife”?! Hmm, well, maybe.

Overall, I do hope people see this film and end up with more interest in Shakespeare. Before watching, I’d recommend reading a detailed summary of the play (scene by scene) at the very least. Or read the play. I still do intend to finish!


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