In the hands of the perfect executors, Shakespeare can be lethal. With Coriolanus, actor and director Ralph Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator) stir up a mean potion as they bring one of Shakespeare's most fierce and dangerous warlords to the big screen in all his bloody glory!
Dressing Shakespeare in modern clothes is not always successful, but this invigourating update of Coriolanus is powerful as its setting transcends time and space, and turns it into a spectacular universal human drama about power, revenge and retribution.
Caius Martius "Coriolanus" (Ralph Fiennes), a revered and feared Roman general, is at odds with the city of Rome and his fellow citizens. Pushed by his controlling and ambitious mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) to seek the exalted and powerful position of consul, he is loath to ingratiate himself with the masses whose votes he needs in order to secure the office. When the public refuse to support him, Coriolanus' anger prompts a riot, which culminates in his expulsion from Rome. The banished hero then allies himself with his sworn enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) to take his revenge on the city.
A great cast
Fiennes directs a great cast, with Vanessa Redgrave larger than life as Coriolanus' domineering mother who instils pride and prejudice in her ruling. Equally potent is Gerard Butler as Coriolanus' fierce adversary, a deadly predator and fearsome warlord who rules with an iron fist.
Besides his headstrong and sensible direction, as well as his impressive visualisation and interpretation, Fiennes is brilliant in the title role, adding a sensitive humanness to the brutal and monstrous power monger.
Coriolanus is a moving and emotional story of family, friendship and brotherhood, and shows how supremacy can not only conquer or divide, but also unite people.
Coriolanus is also a story that deals with abuse, depicting how emotional and physical abuse can fuel aggression and result in explosive dramatic action in which characters are forced to reveal their true nature.
It's this powerful duality that makes Coriolanus an important film that should not be missed under any circumstances. Shakespeare has never been more relevant and resonant.
Ultimately, Coriolanus is a story about humanity enslaved by its own corrupt idealism; a story about humans who need to control love and not use it as a weapon to destroy.
Behind the scenes
In 2000, Ralph Fiennes played the title role of Coriolanus on the London stage in a production directed by Jonathan Kent for the Almeida Theatre at the Gainsborough Studios. For Fiennes, it led to what he describes as something of an obsession. "Although it's a dense play and textually difficult in its original form, I thought that its narrative drive would lend itself to film and the thought stayed, and developed, in my mind." The play's dramatic scope takes the audience from the height of bloody battle to intense political infighting to intimate domestic moments - all modern life is there. But the key to getting Coriolanus made was making the play accessible to the wider modern cinema audience by updating its setting and interpretation.
A few years down the line, Fiennes had developed a strong vision of what he wanted to do, but an introduction by his US agent to celebrated playwright and screenwriter John Logan was the first step in making the project a reality. Logan said: "We saw the play in exactly the same way - raw and contemporary. Neither of us was interested in doing a polite 'museum-piece'. Why bother? The movie had to work first and foremost as modern cinema. In essence, what Ralph and I were always trying to capture was the way the play makes you feel in the theatre: it hits you like a fist." They talked through every line and scene in what Logan describes as "excruciating and exhilarating detail", deciding what to cut and how to move the story on at a cinematic pace. Fiennes said: "We filleted out a lot of complicated and difficult passages, but we've kept those that are important - I think that it would be crazy to totally eviscerate some of the majestic moments and tougher passages that are so stunning."
As a freelance film and theatre journalist for more than 30 years, published playwright and creator of the independent training initiative The Writing Studio, Daniel Dercksen has been a contributor for Lifestyle since 2012. Visit www.writingstudio.co.za
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