January 7, 2012 -- I felt filled up with culture when I saw this modern adaptation of Shakespeare's play, “Coriolanus.” Despite its ancient historical roots and dated language, and no subtitles on the version I saw, I was able to follow this tragic story pretty well. Like many of Shakespeare's works, it has universal themes which will always have relevance.
This unusual adaptation of the play is set in modern day, but not in modern day Italy. Rather it is the Roman Empire, as it would be had it survived to the modern day, complete with TV, machine guns, tanks and talk shows. It is strange to hear Shakespeare's words coming from the mouths of TV newscasters and talk show hosts, but this modern adaptation works remarkably well.
The film opens with Caius Marcius (played by Ralph Fiennes of the Harry Potter movies, who also directs this film) leading an assault on Volscian city of Corioles. Marcius bravely rallies his troops and then faces the enemy commander, Tullus Aufidius (played by Gerard Butler of “RocknRolla)” in hand to hand combat. There is no clear victor since an explosion renders them both unconscious in the midst of their battle. Although Marcius hates Aufidius, he also respects him, saying, “He is a lion I am proud to hunt.”
As a reward for his bravery in battle, Marcius is elevated to the political title of consul and given the name Coriolanus. But Coriolanus doesn't believe in popular rule. He openly scorns the plebeians. He believes that patricians like himself should rule. Members of the Roman Senate know this and conspire to provoke Coriolanus in order to get him to lose his temper and reveal his scorn of the plebeians in public. Coriolanus is provoked and does reveal his scorn. As a result, he is banished from Rome.
Coriolanus wanders alone, finally ending up in Antium where his old enemy, Aufidius, lives. He reveals himself to Aufidius and vows to fight by his side against Rome. He wants vengeance for being cast out. Aufidius knows Coriolanus to be a fierce warrior and an inspirational leader of men, so he gives half his army to his old enemy and watches in wonder as Coriolanus defeats the Roman armies and marches upon the gates of Rome itself.
Rome sends out emissaries in hopes of making peace, but Coriolanus refuses to hear them, even old friends like Senator Menenius (Brian Cox of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”). Finally, Rome sends Coriolanus an emissary he can't refuse, his own mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave of “Atonement”), along with his wife, Virgilia (Jessica Chastain of “The Help”) and young son, Martius (Harry Fenn). Coriolanus cannot refuse his formidable mother, and this leads to his downfall. In fact, if he hadn't followed his mother's political advice about becoming consul in the first place he probably would have avoided this whole mess. She advised him to soft-pedal his anti-plebian views to get public approval. That was not his style at all.
The pride of Coriolanus, and the pride of his mother both combine to make a tragedy for a lot of people. This reminds me of a saying in the book of Proverbs in the Bible, “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Pride has proved to be the downfall of many, and it will claim many more. Shakespeare had a rare gift for illuminating these kinds of truths. This film brings Shakespeare's play to life again with sound and fury and blazing colors, including a blood-drenched Coriolanus who looks and fights like a demon. I have not seen or read this play, or a film adaptation before, so it was all new to me.
The acting is very good in this film, particularly by Fiennes, Butler, Redgrave and Cox. Coriolanus's eruptions of anger are a thing to behold as he literally spits out his words. Filmed in Belgrade, Serbia, there are a lot of Serbian names in the cast, and some Serbian music, too. It is an impressive production. This film rates a B.
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