Film Review: Coriolanus

Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus may be the first film for the 99% and Occupy Wall Street Movement.  Fiennes’ highly perceptive adaptation of William Shakespeare’s tragedy about the man who would be emperor is based on the ancient Roman warrior who, according to the historian Plutarch, represented the patricians, i.e., the 1% of the Roman empire in the 5th century B.C. Gaius Marcius Coriolanus opposed the rights of the plebeians, and in addition to thrilling battle sequences, this big screen epic is full of class struggle and mass action.  For a second, I thought I was watching Berkeley students or Oakland’s occupiers valiantly battling the pigs.  Written circa 1605 about events now more than 2,500 years old, this drama remains very timely in our own era of the Arab Spring, U.K. summer riots, American Autumn and so on.

Fiennes, who directed and stars as the title character, quite cleverly sets the action in the 21st century — the dramatis personae are all clad in modern dress, and the soldiers use contemporary weaponry (although there is, in that great Shakespearean tradition, some dueling – but of course!).  However, the characters speak the bard’s deathless prose, so this adaptation, scripted by John Logan, has the best of three worlds: Ancient Rome, Elizabethan England and today’s world roiled by class warfare.

The cast, led by the mellifluous Fiennes, who co-starred in The English Patient and Schindler’s List, is absolutely stellar.  Brussels-born Lubna Azabal (who appeared in 2005’s Palestinian thriller Paradise Now) is fiery as a rabblerousing plebe who helps lead the resistance of the lower classes to Coriolanus.  Vanessa Redgrave, always a joy to behold onscreen, is peerless as Coriolanus’ smothering mother Volumnia; her smoldering scenes opposite Fiennes are redolent with Oedipal undertones, which might account for her martial son’s need to overcompensate, like those fatherless U.S. presidents who believe that becoming commander in chief and leader of the “free world” will somehow make up for their lack of fathers.

This is certainly Jessica Chastain’s year, having co-starred in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and playing here Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia.  She and Redgrave share a bravura scene, imploring Coriolanus not to sack Rome.  As the politician Menenius in the pro-plebian wing of the Roman senate, British actor Brian Cox represents the quintessential liberal officeholder.  And best of all, that first among equals, is Fiennes himself, who brilliantly portrays the bloodthirsty, hubristic would-be conquering hero as a skinhead inflamed by all-consuming ambition.  Fiennes puts the “anus” into Coriolanus.

I have one minor bone to pick with this film: Anyone who has ever been to former Yugoslavia will quickly see that this film was shot there, with a proverbial cast of thousands from that region, instead of in Italy where the historically-based drama is set, with Italian extras.  I suspect that this was done for strictly budgetary purposes – although, you never know.  Perhaps outgoing Roman emperor – uh, I mean Italian Prime Minister – Silvio “Bunga Bunga” Berlusconi considers Coriolanus to be a kindred spirit, and doesn’t exactly like the way this cautionary tale about power corrupting, and absolute power corrupting absolutely, turns out.

But the location shooting is a minor quibble; Coriolanus was one of my favorite movies at this year’s AFI Filmfest, where it was presented as one of the Festival’s Special Screenings.  In his exquisite, veddy British speaking voice Fiennes introduced the picture at the Chinese 1, thanking his agents, producer Harvey Weinstein and publicist, “who got behind it when everyone else said, ‘don’t do it!’” I’m likewise delighted that Fiennes didn’t heed the naysayers and is picking up the Shakespearean mantle from Kenneth Branagh.  Fiennes has arguably directed the best modern dress version of a Shakespeare play since Orson Welles’ anti-Mussolini 1937 Mercury Theatre  production of Julius Caesar, its Roman centurions wearing blackshirts.  With his auspicious directorial debut, all hail the new Shakespearean hero: Ralph Fiennes!

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