The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"CORIOLANUS"

Coriolanus
Ralph Fiennes and Gerard Butler form an alliance.

Add Ralph Fiennes to the list of good actors who also make good directors. His debut film, Coriolanus, is a modern-day Shakespeare adaptation that really comes alive. As an actor, Fiennes has achieved a reputation for going deep into character, never settling for “easy” when he can be plunging his characters' souls. As a director, he takes a similar approach. This is a tremendously vivid examination of one man's strengths and weaknesses, prides and flaws.

Fiennes also stars as Caius Martius Coriolanus, a powerful yet controversial general in the Roman army. During an ongoing border skirmish with a rival faction, he pushes some strategies that cause civil liberties to be trampled. An activist group seeks to have him tossed for his deeds. Following heroic actions in battle, his mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), encourages him to seek the high office of Consul. Doing so means earning the support of the poor, who were most drastically affected by his leadership decisions. Many people, including his wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain), urge him to make peace. He tries, but the activists stoke the protests against him. Bitter, rejected, and enraged, Coriolanus casts off his people and allies with his former enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). This proves to be a decision that has many consequences for many people.

Time for a confession that may make me sound stupid to some of you. I took a college course on Shakespeare, and I didn't do very well. I've always had trouble with the language. If I sit and ponder it long enough, I can get the gist of things; but when seeing a movie where the characters speak in Shakespearean language, it often flies by so fast that I can't grasp it. The amazing thing about Coriolanus is that I grasped it. The adaptation by John Logan uses some techniques to make the material accessible without ever dumbing it down. At various points in the film, fake TV newscasts provide updates that clue us into the action. There are also short moments where individuals speak in a more modern tone, just so we don't get lost. The actors do a lot in this regard as well, making their emotions so crystal clear and speaking in such precise tones that we know what's happening at all times.

And what an amazing roster of actors! Fiennes is a beast in this role, showing every ounce of rage inside Coriolanus. Here is a man who feels he deserves respect. When he doesn't get it, he becomes resentful and vengeful, lashing out at even those closest to him. Fiennes does powerhouse work. So does Redgrave, portraying a woman of fierce ambition for both herself and her son. There's an extended scene in the last act, where Volumnia tries to talk sense into Coriolanus, only to have her compassion turn to chastisement. Gerard Butler, meanwhile, makes Tullus Aufidius a suitably formidable foe for Coriolanus. These are two tough guys facing off, with neither of them intending to back down. Jessica Chastain and Brian Cox (as Coriolanus' most trusted confidante) also do great work.

It's really interesting how Coriolanus adapts Shakespeare's story to the present day. Fiennes and Logan find the themes in the work that have current resonance and spotlight them. There are even a few action scenes that manage to be exciting while still supporting the plot. Our world has certainly had its share of larger-than-life figures in the past decade, some who tried to earn respect, and others who attempted to command it. We've seen wrong-headed decisions made for personal reasons, seemingly without concern for those likely to be most affected. We've seen tyrants and cynics and madmen. The film taps into all these things, which makes it feel very timely.

Beautifully photographed, tightly edited, and brilliantly acted, Coriolanus is a movie I enjoyed more than I expected to. It is the kind of intense character study that really sucks you in. If you dig Shakespeare, it will probably already be of interest to you. If not, don't be put off by the source material. Coriolanus illustrates that the Bard's works are still as relevant as they are open to new interpretations. And this is easily one of the best interpretations I've seen.

( 1/2 out of four)


Coriolanus is rated R for some bloody violence. The running time is 2 hours and 2 minutes.


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