TIFF Review: Coriolanus

The problem with Coriolanus resides in the completely anachronistic nature of the work. Shakespeare's language mixed with a "modern" update can't help but lead to tonal problems, pacing problems, and relevancy problems. Yep, Coriolanus has 99 problems and The Bard is one.

For those not familiar with the work, the play was written 400 years ago and was based on the life of a Roman general who lived in 500 B.C., Gaius Marcius Coriolanus. If you're keeping track at home, Shakespeare adapted his story based on a general who had been dead more than two thousand years, and then in 2011 Ralph Fiennes chose to go this adaptation route for his directorial debut. So these themes would have to be eternal to have survived this long, yes? Certainly there would be life lessons all around for such a timeless endeavor? And why am I positing potential premises without affirming any of them as even remotely accurate? Ahem.

Shakespearean prose is a beautiful thing, and to that end the dialogue of Coriolanus, written by William S. his own self, is of course lovely and majestic upon the ear. It's also crammed full of asides, out of step with modern conversational methods, and absolutely lousy with straw men arguments buried inside soliloquies. For example, the average scene in Coriolanus goes a bit like this: A proud character will admit he has too much pride, and then say pride is a feature of instinct, and then pivot toward the loving instinct of a mother-son relationship as compared to the rain on a cloudy day. He'll then parry a quick rebuttal from a third-party conversational participant about cloudy days at least leading to green canopies. The prideful fellow will then talk about green being the color of emeralds and envy and oh my goodness we've still accomplished nothing. We, the audience, are all still here, waiting for anyone on-screen to make a meaningful comment of any kind. Oh, it's clever dialogue to be sure, and there's a reason Shakespeare's larger themes of love, loss, and vengeance still hold a place within our culture's consciousness, but modern takes on Shakespeare that leave the original language untouched are just massively out of place in modern cinema. If you're going to show us Shakespeare, go the full Hamlet route and just put it in the round. Then it feels authentic, vibrant, and legitimate.

But I digress. The plot of Coriolanus should be considered, and so consider we shall. He's a general in Rome, food shortages abound, and the enemy (known in the film as the Volsces) is at the gates. Gaius Marcius (Ralph Fiennes) is a top-notch soldier, he leads from the front, and he's all about winning important battles. He's got two dozen scars from the umpteen battles he's fought, so there can be no questioning his effectiveness or valor. His main adversary on the enemy side of the lines is Gerard Butler as Tullus Aufidius. Aufidius is single-minded in his hatred of Gaius, and this is a characteristic they mirror in the other. The battlefield success of Gaius vaults him into a position where he's politically influential, and there's a call to make him the consul of the entirety of Rome. Unfortunately, with this "honor" comes the burden of serving the people, and Gaius is both noble-born and unwilling to flatter. Gaius and his family are swept up by this political intrigue (his mother is played with verve by Vanessa Redgrave), and soon events are spiraling beyond their control. Gaius is prideful, but he's also bled for Rome. He's a clear leader, but he doesn't want to lead the people. C'mon fella, just lead us! But no dice, not gonna happen -- Gaius is nothing if not stubborn.

There is a narrative arc to Coriolanus, but it moves along at a snail's pace and the main theme of the film (the pride of Gaius vs. the people he's sworn to protect) isn't a grabber.  And oh the speeches, the endless speeches. The "modern" aspect of the film tries to break up the monotony with drumbeats and warfare, but it's a distraction at best. You know another long-winded and overly soul-searching windbag is going to get you, and it's just a matter of when. A film like Coriolanus desperately needed to try something new, anything at all besides set design. Instead, a story 2,500 years gone by feels like a story that's about two hours too long.

Grade: D+