Saturday, March 10, 2012


"Coriolanus" is the next step in my long evil plan to see every good movie ever made.  Now I only have a million more to go.  I should be done by this time tomorrow, I think.

Since this is a good movie, that means I get to write a positive review.  "Coriolanus" was written by William Shakespeare, who is easily the best screenwriter in Hollywood, but oddly never seems to ever get that Oscar he so desperately deserves.  "Coriolanus" is one of his more obscure plays, and having seen this movie, why?  This is also the directorial debut of Ralph Fiennes, and he stars in the movie too.  Shakespeare, to his misfortune, didn't get much say in the artistic development of this movie, because he clearly wanted this to be set in the ancient Roman Republic, but Fiennes instead casts it in depressing modern-day Eastern Europe.  These creative differences led to Shakespeare taking his name off the final movie, and instead they gave screenwriter credit to the imaginary pseudonym "John Logan"*.  But despite this behind the scenes acrimony, "Coriolanus" was a great movie, something that Mr. Shakespeare should be proud of.

"Coriolanus" is a political tragedy where the titular Gaius Marcius Coriolanus throws away his future in the Roman Republic for hating the people and refusing to compromise.  Its also a violent war movie, with an awesome action scene (but sadly only one).  This is like a fully modern war drama only with Shakespeare's special brand of incredible writing which is arguably the greatest work the English language has ever produced.  Its hyper modern, where BBC news anchors on TV have replaced the traditional Shakespearian character of a Herald.  Instead of togas and spears there are officer uniforms, business suits, and machine guns.  A lot of Shakespeare movies set themselves in modern times, but usually stylized Victorian times or a Fascist Britain, "Coriolanus" goes so far as to have cellphones in it.  So go out and see it immediately if you can.  Definitely one of the best movies of 2012 so far.

One of the great things that Fiennes does for "Coriolanus" is surround himself with very strong actors, making for an incredible cast.  Gerard Butler is of course the main barbarian villain, giving his usual Scottish arrogance to the Bard's meter.  Brian Cox plays a supportive senator.  Jessica Chastain is Coriolanus' wife.  And most impressively, Vanessa Redgrave plays Coriolanus's militaristic mother, stealing every single scene.  Coriolanus' mother was easily the strongest character in the play, driving the title character forward in all decisions, looming over his life much more than his wife and son (and bringing some creepy incestuous undertones too).  Coriolanus himself might be the hero, but he's actually relatively absent from the audience, not giving a single soliloquy - oddly there's not a single soliloquy in this entire movie.

As a matter of fact, Coriolanus's own lack of introspection is the fundamental problem of the play movie.  He is a master warrior, as urged by his mother to be a sword for Rome and to attain glory through his own martial powers.  However, that's all Coriolanus knows how to do.  When faced with any political opposition, Coriolanus cannot make himself bend to flattering his foes or flattering himself.  He's entirely hopeless as a politician, a man who hates the Plebs of Rome for not being soldiers, but also is so proud that he cannot show off his exploits to make his political case.  When the people turn on him, Coriolanus cannot help but respond with violence and hate, then finally join with the barbarians against Rome when he loses.  Joining with his foes is a final show of strength, since he cannot rule the Roman people through politics, he'll prove his superiority to them with the sword.  Its the only logical move for him, he's too empty a person to understand anything but honor through violence.  Coriolanus' martial philosophy is that of a barbarian, he is not a person that belongs in the complicated and morally vague world of an advanced civilization, which is why he fits in so well with his enemies against Rome.  The most romantic relationship (not directly sexual, but the tones are there) he has is actually with his initial arch enemy, Gerard Butler's character.  He's too unsophisticated to look within himself to see flaws, he can't question himself, he can only fight.  That is what his mother made him to be.

So... as you can tell by that bit of literary criticism, I really loved Shakespeare's "Coriolanus" and I loved Fiennes' version of it... which is the only version I've ever seen.

Unlike most of Shakespeare's work there is actually a full-blown action scene towards the middle of the movie.  Coriolanus charges into a building full of his enemies all on his own, then has a knife-fight with the big boss.  Unfortunately, this is the only real action scene in the movie, and there really needed to be another one towards the end.  I just like having the cool fight scenes at the end, not the beginning.  The resolution is emotional for its own reasons.  There's also a bit of pacing problems in the movie where the third quarter of the movie drags on for about twenty minutes too long.

In another positive, this is probably the most streamlined adaptation of a Shakespeare movie.  By that I mean that it was very understandable and well-paced.  Often enough when you watch Shakespeare the dialog goes by too fast and you might misunderstand the meaning of a speech or miss an allusion to classical mythology.  "Coriolanus" was very easy to follow, so even if you don't like Shakespeare you could probably watch this movie without much trouble.

In conclusion "Coriolanus" was a great movie, great for Shakespeare fans (like me), and good in all the ways you'd want out of a movie.  Not perfect, there have been better Shakespeare war movies, such as Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V", but still worth seeing.  If only it was playing in more than one theatre in the East Village... that's unfortunate.  I'd really like more people to have the option to see it instead of having to settle for "The Lorax" or something.

* John Logan also "wrote" - if we can play around for a bit - "Gladiator" and "Hugo", a few somewhat decent movies, and "Bats", the greatest movie ever made.


  1. I was hoping that this would be good, I am a bit of a Shakespeare fan.
    But I still have one question: Is this set in an alternate history where the Roman Empire endured to modern day? Because the trailers and things you say in your review make it seem like that could be the case.

    1. The Roman thing is never really explained. Its best thought of as a depressing Eastern European country like Russia that just happens to be called "Rome". And for some reason has an African Console.