Even Shakespeare had his off days. Written toward the end of his career, Coriolanus is perhaps the closest the Bard came to a flop. There is no evidence the play was ever performed in his lifetime, and, if you’re anything like me, this modernized adaptation will leave you wondering why anyone felt the need to perform it in ours.
The likely reason Ralph Fiennes chose Coriolanus for his directorial debut, of course, is that it deals with the hot-button topic of war. The problem is that it doesn’t do so in a way that yields meaningful parallels or insights with respect to the present-day world stage. It’s the story of a nut job, plain and simple. Changing the century in which the tale takes place doesn’t change that.
Fiennes plays Caius Martius, a Roman general whose family and friends are attempting to groom him for a career in politics. When we first encounter him, he’s a rising star owing to his recent victory over neighboring Volscian forces. In honor of his conquest of the enemy city of Corioles, he’s been given the name Coriolanus.
Only one thing stands between the military hero and election by the people: He can’t stomach the people. The aristocrat holds them in such contempt that he can’t bring himself to go through the motions of courting their favor. On the Roman equivalent of Election Day, he’s coached by an advisor (Brian Cox) to reach out to the masses. But when his moment comes, Coriolanus instead explodes, “You common cry of curs whose breath I hate / As reek o’ th’ rotten fens, whose loves I prize / As the dead carcasses of unburied men / That do corrupt my air!” At which point he’s banished by a landslide.
One of the film’s failings is that it presents its central figure as a one-dimensional 1 percenter. The screenplay, by Gladiator scripter John Logan, offers zero insight into the soldier’s antisocial pathology. He fumes. He sputters. He bellows. He bellows a lot. But he never quite gets around to telling us what his problem is.
Fiennes isn’t a whole lot of help in that regard, either. His vision for the character seems a cross between Chuck Norris circa 1984’s Missing in Action and Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. When he’s not wiping out entire brigades single-handedly with his AK-47, he’s brooding, his shaved head painted with blood. If he’s thinking deep thoughts, however, they’re never shared with the viewer.
Did I mention this is a bromance? The general’s manipulative, power-hungry mother is played by Vanessa Redgrave. Jessica Chastain — who you’d have sworn couldn’t possibly have appeared in one more movie last year — appears as his uncomprehending wife. But Coriolanus only has eyes for Gerard Butler in the role of the Volscian commander Tullus Aufidius. After getting kicked out of Rome, he joins forces with his former foe and vows to “fight / Against my cankered country with the spleen / of all the under fiends,” though you get the definite sense Coriolanus misses the days the two spent clenched in hand-to-hand combat.
Perhaps to distract his audience from the dullness of this blowhard cipher, the filmmaker has devised all sorts of clever ways to contemporize the play. The battle scenes are as gritty and realistic as any in The Hurt Locker. This is because they were shot by Barry Ackroyd, The Hurt Locker’s cinematographer. Reports of skirmishes are broadcast over CNN-style news channels, and pundits appear on camera analyzing plot developments in iambic pentameter.
Touches like these enliven the picture momentarily, but can’t begin to compensate for its shortcomings. A casualty of sloppy, chaotic staging, poor editing, dead-ended plotting and way too many instances of overacting, Coriolanus is two hours full of what the bard on a better day might have called “sound and fury signifying nothing.”