I’m not sure there was ever anything edgy or avant-garde about staging a Shakespeare play in modern day. Even if there was at one time, we can probably agree that’s no longer the case. In fact, setting Macbeth in postapocalyptic Detroit or Romeo and Juliet in whatever era you find stuffed in the community theater’s prop closet is so commonplace now that seeing a Shakespeare play in full 16th century regalia is becoming the rarity.
So, on the surface of the thing, actor Ralph Fiennes gets no bonus points for giving a modern, men-with-guns military slant to his Shakespeare-derived directorial debut. He does, however, get a bit of extra credit for choosing what is arguably Shakespeare’s most obscure play, the militant revenge saga Coriolanus.
Naturally, people start talking about what a great consul this Coriolanus guy would make. Backed by his powerful patrician mother and a couple of opportunistic politicians, the war hero is poised to become Rome’s next great ruler.
All Shakespearian heroes must, by definition, come with a tragic flaw, however. Coriolanus’ seems to be that he’s a blustery jerk. He’s not interested in pumping up his role as a war hero—not because he’s humble, exactly. Mostly, he just doesn’t give a crap about the common people. He has little in common with the politicians who run Rome and even less with the plebeians on the street. He’s brusque, short-tempered and pathologically incapable of kissing ass—a necessary skill for any would-be leader. Coriolanus is a soldier, a weapon that needs to be pointed at an enemy. Without a war to fight, he’s useless. It isn’t long before the fickle people of Rome are bored with their hero, and Coriolanus’ political allies turn against him for their own gain. Pissed off and pumped up, Coriolanus cooks up a nasty revenge plot against all of Rome and goes looking for his old enemy Aufidius. Trust me, this ain’t gonna end well.
If you aren’t already well-versed in Shakespearian language, you probably shouldn’t bother with Coriolanus. While the costumes, the props and the Hurt Locker-style camerawork pay lip service to the modern setting, Willy’s dialogue remains unaltered. Unlike Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, the language isn’t even inflected for modern audiences. Despite the fact that screenwriter John Logan (The Last Samurai, Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo) trims Shakespeare’s original text to the bare bones to incorporate more high-caliber gunplay and bloodletting, the man of the hour, Mr. Ralph Fiennes, remains an iambic pentameter purist. In his popular 1996 adaptation, Luhrmann used the modern setting to make cheeky jokes. (When characters talked about using swords when they were clearly holding guns, it was OK—because “Sword” was the brand name stamped on the weapons.) Here, dense, florid prose is mixed incongruously with a violent, explosive-filled action flick. The mix is an uneasy one.
Acting-wise, there’s a decent amount to praise. Fiennes, who has drifted toward villainous overacting of late (Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter films, Hades in Clash of the Titans) reins it in a bit here. Butler is credible as the strong-but-silent enemy-turned-ally of our doomed protagonist. (Even if he does add another thick accent to a cast list already choked with British, American, Nigerian, Israeli and Yugoslavian voices.) Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave, James Nesbitt and Jessica Chastain (damn, she’s in everything now) round out the better-than-average cast.
The film was shot in some of the crappier, more war-torn chunks of Serbia, and it manages to work in a few modern references to justify the setting. Visually—with its cable news narrators and jittery war correspondent camerawork—it mirrors the televised history of various Eastern European conflicts. (The only thing missing are blue-helmeted U.N. troops.) It also finds a philosophical kinship with the 99 percent movement. (Evidently, politicians, warmongers and rich folks have always told average citizens to kiss off.) For all the flourishes Fiennes and his crew add, however, Coriolanus isn’t all that gripping a story. It’s severely lacking in the hero department. Coriolanus isn’t the fascinatingly conflicted monster that Macbeth or Hamlet become. He’s just an angry, violent, holier-than-thou asshole.
Once the language has settled into your brain and things stop blowing up, Coriolanus does find itself an enjoyably dark groove. With its blood-soaked cast, nobody’s-gonna-win scenario and frequent metaphorical language about beasts, monsters and animals, Coriolanus is The Bard at his most bruising. But, for all its postmodern tinkering, Fiennes’ take remains a treat solely for dyed-in-the-wool Willy the Shake scholars.