There have been several attempts to take the plays of William Shakespeare and contemporize them. Some have been incredibly successful like Baz Luhrmann’s great adaptation of Romeo and Juliet or Kenneth Branagh’s brilliant take on Hamlet which moves the story to the 19th century. Others have not been quite as successful. I have personally seen two versions of Macbeth that have attempted to bring the story into modern day, both of which tried to use similar ways of doing so, but ultimately failed. Now we are faced with a modernized version of Coriolanus, a play that most people have most likely never read and probably don’t even know what it’s about.
The story starts in Rome, a city that is at war with a neighboring people known as the Volsces. The city’s greatest soldier, Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes), once again finds himself in battle against the Volsces’ leader, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). After Caius returns home in victory, he is awarded the name “Coriolanus” for his great deeds and is expected to be made consul. However, first he must receive the approval of the common people, a group he is known to hate. Meanwhile, the two tribunes of the people, Brutus (Paul Jesson) and Sicinius (James Nesbitt), fearing for their positions, conspire to enrage the people against Coriolanus.
Their plot is so successful that it results in Coriolanus’s banishment. Leaving behind his wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain), his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), his son Martius (Harry Fenn), and his friend Menenius (Brian Cox), he sets out for Antium, the home of his enemy Tullus Aufidius. There he offers Aufidius his services in fighting against Rome in order to claim his revenge, a service that he gladly accepts.
Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s plays that doesn’t seem to pop up very often. Rarely do I hear of performances of it occurring and the very few film adaptations before this one have all been made for TV. I only got around to reading the play a few months ago in preparation for seeing this new version, but sadly, it never came around to my area, so all I had in terms of an adaptation before now was the BBC version.
If you’ve ever seen any of their older Shakespeare productions, then you know that they’re very low-budget adaptations, but still, they’ve produced some amazing versions like Hamlet with Derek Jacobi or The Taming of the Shrew with John Cleese. Their adaptation of Coriolanus was likewise barebones, but did a decent job of getting the story on screen. Who knows why no one had attempted a big-budget version of the play before? Perhaps it was simply due to the play’s obscurity.
The film is directed by and stars Ralph Fiennes, who had played the part on stage and decided that it was time to bring it to film. He brings a certain power to the character’s contempt. What Coriolanus really boils down to is a person who just doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut for his own good. He has the consulship is his pocket if he can simply placate the common people, even if it’s with false notions of caring about them, and yet, his contempt for them is so great, that it spills out in long diatribes. Is it any wonder that the tribunes are so incredibly successful with their plan?
One of the breakout stars of last year was Jessica Chastain, who starred in multiple films from this to The Help and The Tree of Life. Here she plays Coriolanus’s wife, Virgilia, a devoted woman who even refuses to go out of doors until she hears that her husband is safely returned from the war with the Volsces. It’s a small part, but she infuses it with a good deal of emotion. Speaking of emotion, the major feminine role of the play is that of Volumnia, Coriolanus’s mother, played here by the great Vanessa Redgrave.
Back when I was reading the play, I had already heard of her casting and was beginning to get concerned when the part was proving to be rather small. I figured that there must be something juicy near the end for her to sink her teeth into and I was proven to be right as there’s an amazing scene in the final act that, when in the hands of a great actress, can have a powerful emotional impact. The scene consists of Volumnia, Virgilia, and young Martius meeting with Coriolanus in an attempt to stop his rage upon Rome. Redgrave knocks the scene out of the park with spectacular delivery of the speeches, bringing the play to its emotional zenith.
As for the contemporization of the play, it doesn’t really help or hinder it. The whole point behind it, as Fiennes explains, is that this could be any city at any time. It’s still interesting to see any Shakespeare play transferred to another time, whether it has any affect on the story or not. They certainly chose a great screenwriter to adapt it. John Logan has been responsible for writing/co-writing/adapting such great films as Sweeney Todd, Gladiator, The Last Samurai, The Aviator, and Hugo, so there was little doubt that he wouldn’t have any trouble updating the play for modern times.
The funny thing about Coriolanus, and a possible second reason why we haven’t seen a big-budget version before now, is that the play doesn’t particularly lend itself to being made into a film, contemporized or in its classic setting. That’s not to say that it shouldn’t be made into a movie, the play is certainly a good read, but it’s not exactly the kind of riveting Shakespeare drama that is normally brought to screen like with Hamlet, Macbeth, or even Richard III, and yet, the two screen versions I’ve seen have managed to make it work well enough.
Looking at the blu-ray itself, the film is presented in a great 2.35:1, 1080p transfer that is extra sharp, allowing for everything to be seen crystal clear, which is especially useful given that much of the film is adorned with drab colors. The only problem with the 5.1 DTSHD-MA audio track is that I had to strain to hear what was being said in certain scenes as sometimes the dialogue was far too soft even with the volume on my TV turned way up. Other than that, most of it was clear and lucid.
Unfortunately, the special features on the disc are rather slim and include only a brief making of featurette and an audio commentary from director/actor Ralph Fiennes. The featurette is merely five minutes long and doesn’t delve very deep into the making of the film while a ten-minute sampling of the commentary shows that Fiennes merely likes to describe what’s happening on the screen at the time.
Overall, this blu-ray gives you a decent film, but once again the studio is severely skimping on the special features, forcing me to say that it’s not quite worth buying unless you’re really into the film. Unfortunately, this is not one of those releases that I can recommend you purchasing based solely on the film itself, but if you’re a fan of Shakespeare like myself, I do recommend giving it a rental at least so that you can see one of his little-known plays given the big screen treatment.
Ralph Fiennes' take on Shakespeare's Coriolanus is bold, but pays off with some amazing performances, a well-adapted screenplay, and strong direction from Fiennes himself in his directorial debut.