Shakespeare’s never been so badass.
Coriolanus is about a legendary general of a city called Rome – a man who has continually placed himself on the front lines to defend his homeland and whose so-called “pride” has made him an enemy of the people who grovel for democracy. After achieving victory once more against the Volscian army that threatens his city’s safety, the general is urged to run for consul of the Senate. Despite his hesitations, he heeds the advice of those around him and extends the bare minimum of efforts to win the favor of the citizens he so despises. When they deny him their support, the general finds himself exiled from the city he once protected, and with no place left to call home, turns to the Volscians to seek vengeance on those who shunned him.
It’s adapted from the play of the same name by good old Bill Shakespeare, and it truly pains me to say that until I’d heard about this movie, I never knew such a play existed. Now, my relationship with Shakespeare is one of love and hate. I loved Macbeth, I hated most everything else. Okay, maybe “hate’s” a little strong, but let’s just say I’m not a fan. It’s not that I don’t think he was a good writer or have lost sleep wondering whether it was he or some ghostwriting aristocrat who quilled all those classics, it’s actually that I was an English major. Most people tend to go with “I wish I’d studied abroad,” but my one regret from the four years I spent in college is that I didn’t look into the wonderful world of American Studies and thus prevented myself from having to spend half of my requirement courses with Shakespeare, Milton, and that creepy bastard Marlowe. I know there are many who would disagree with me, but one man can only be forced to read Hamlet so many times before snapping. Not even gonna start with his “comedies…”
So when this started up and everyone on-screen started speaking in Old English, I had to fight the urge to yell “Fuck this!” and storm off into Arthur Christmas. But the more I stuck with it, the more I listened, and the less of a chore it became to break down what was being said, I eventually realized that I was watching something exceptional. Partly it’s the cast, partly it’s the modern-day setting, but wouldn’t you know, mostly it’s Shakespeare.
The titular general in the spotlight is one Gaius Marcius, who takes on the surname of Coriolanus after single-handedly defeating an army of Volscians at their home city of Corioles. That’s right, everyone else pussies out after their first helping of lead salad, so he dusts that dirt off his shoulder, goes in guns blazing, and offs an entire battalion by himself as a way to rally the troops. He’s a mama’s boy, he’s a family man in the loosest sense of the word, but when it comes to putting down the opposition, he’s the guy you want at the gates. In short, he’s a lot like Patton. He’s a stubborn asshole who doesn’t apologize for his principles, and when he’s forced to betray those very principles to beg for the approval of the ungrateful masses, that’s when things get interesting. But put him on a battlefield and he’ll shut those hungry commoners right up.
It’s a fascinating perspective to drive a story from because you want to root for him as much as you want to root against him. You want to see him crowned for the battle scars he’s earned so that others could live, but there’s no denying he’d make a shit politician. You want him to exact his revenge on those damn Romans, but it’s mighty hard to justify the means when his family’s on the hit list. A lot of people throw a lot of labels at Coriolanus in an effort to pin down his strengths and flaws as a soldier, a leader, and a person, but not one really gets it because he’s constantly evolving at a pace he can’t even follow…with the sole exception of his mother. There are no good guys and bad guys here, just people blinded by ambitions that aren’t always their own. In other words, people who could really afford to read Macbeth.
Now, I’m of the mindset that Ralph Fiennes was robbed blind when he didn’t get an Oscar for his stone cold turn as Amon Goeth almost 20 years ago. Not to say that Tommy Lee Jones didn’t kick ass in The Fugitive, but Goeth was evil in a way I’ve never seen on film. The man’s had a hell of a career since, but this is the first time in a long time where he’s in his element. From the second he marches on screen and silences a riot by using his inside voice, you will fear Coriolanus as everyone else fears Coriolanus, and you will listen as though you’re right there in the picket line with your heart in your mouth. Coriolanus was tailor-made for Ralph Fiennes, and the same goes two-fold for Vanessa Redgrave as his mother, Volumnia. I am not kidding in the effing least: at 74-years-old and with the half the amount of screen-time as Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave wears the pants towers over this movie with a honed ferocity like you will not believe. I seriously need to do my homework when it comes to her career, because she’s the veteran here and she makes it known with ease.
If this qualifies for awards season (and I hope it does,) I think they’ve both got a damn strong chance at some wins.
The tragically under-appreciated and always phenomenal Brian Cox is just that as Coriolanus’ chief advisor, Menenius; and then there’s Gerard Butler, and I am so outrageously happy for Gerard Butler. For the past five years, I can only assume that Gerard Butler’s agent has been the homeless guy behind the local In-N-Out Burger who gave happened to give him a lucky tip about 300 and then convinced him that ass-awful romcoms were the way of the future. With the track record of a one-legged race horse, I don’t know how Gerry got landed this gig as Coriolanus’ mortal enemy Tullus Aufilius, but he’s fantastic and it’s absolutely no surprise. For someone who rose to overnight fame for making every man on Earth feel like Augustus Gloop, Sr., it’s about time this movie happened to him.
My only minuscule complaint about is that Shakespeare’s words don’t sound quite as smooth coming out of the mouth of Jessica Chastain as Coriolanus’ wife. She does a fine job and this is by no means a low point in the most epic year of her life as an actress, but whereas everyone else speaks like it’s common practice, she speaks like she’s on a stage. I know, it’s pretty damn tough to make Old English sound like New English, but I guess that’s as much a compliment to the rest of the cast as it is a hangup over Chastain.
Given the world that we now live in, one rife with civil unrest and mired in wars, the pertinence of Coriolanus also resonates just as profoundly as it did the real-life Gaius Marcius was still kicking. Whether it’s the uprisings in Egypt or those wildly confused Occupiers, Coriolanus is as universal and timeless a figure as they come, and as are those who want to him fall. While it never would have happened without Shakespeare, screenwriter John Logan still gets a whole bunch of credit for adapting this in such a masterful and timely manner. From the cast to the crew, you can tell there’s a real respect for the source material, and when you have that going for you on a set, it really comes through on all fronts in the end.
The last time a movie gave me such a fond appreciation for Shakespeare was when Kenneth Branagh took on Henry V, and while I’m not gonna be the guy to say this adaptation trumps one of the all-time greats, it’s surely up there with the best of ’em. I wish one of my old teachers had introduced me to this play when they were trying to get me to like Shakespeare, because Coriolanus knocked me flat on my ass. Then again, I believe Ralph Fiennes could read Everyone Poops to me in Pig Latin and it would be my new favorite book by page two. It’s just such an unbelievably compelling, intense, and brilliant character study about the fickle natures of power and loyalty that’s only made better by some of the best characters and performances I’ve seen all year. I really can’t say enough about what an accomplishment this movie is, and if you’re not into Shakespeare, trust me, you’ll see the light.