Anyone who tries to argue that Shakespeare is no longer relevant only has to see “Coriolanus,” the new film by Ralph Fiennes, based on the Bard’s 1608 play, to be proven wrong. The story of a banished Roman hero who vows revenge on his city has echoes of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Tea Party and the 99%. That it also has a towering performance by Vanessa Redgrave is simply the icing on the top of a very old cake.
Set in present day Rome, the film centers on the title character (Fiennes), a great warrior who despises the people he is sworn to protect. When his run for elected office is undone by his extreme opinions, scheming politicians and an end run by his mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) he is banished from Rome. Seeking revenge he hatches a plan with his sworn enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) to destroy Rome. A dramatic appeal from Volumnia changes his mind, but alienates his new ally.
Ralph Fiennes, in his directorial debut, takes a little known play and makes it relevant for our times. In light of the world’s recent social unrest—London riots, Occupy this and that, Syria—Fiennes has reached deep into the past to place modern events in context. The four hundred old dialogue reveals the primal nature of man—and how it hasn’t changed.
The fight for power, the thirst for revenge, the bond between a mother and son, the disenfranchisement of the people; these topics are as fresh today as they were in Shakespeare’s day.
Timeliness aside, the film works as a dramatic piece. Fiennes uses handheld cameras to add a sense immediacy, as though we’re watching a live newscast. As usual the wobbly cam makes one feel seasick by the time the first double-cross has happened, but it does add visual energy. Add to that battle scenes shot by The Hurt Locker cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and you have a movie filled with lines like “Death, that dark spirit, in ‘s nervy arm doth lie; Which, being advanced, declines, and then men die,” and yet feels absolutely modern.
As for the acting, Fiennes is fine, refined yet feral. Voldemort with a nose and a habit a furiously spitting as he speaks. Gerrad Butler surprises with his range and Brian Cox as the backstabbing politico Menenius, a two-faced senator playing both sides against the middle is powerful, but it is Vanessa Redgrave who controls the screen.
Distilling decades of performing Shakespeare on film and the stage she hits all the right notes, creating a character who would be recognizable to a seventeenth century audience, but works beautifully on screen. Her final showdown with her son on a barren road is a tour-de-force and worth the price of admission alone.
“Coriolanus” isn’t the masterful work that Ian McKellan’s “Richard III” was, but it is a passionate, interesting film that feels ripped from the headlines.
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