Shakespeare, or whoever wrote his plays (thanks a lot, Roland Emmerich), created stories that give me comfort about how human nature has never changed. What was relevant hundreds of years ago is still timely, and makes for striking film adaptations like Ralph Fiennes' version of Coriolanus. The dangers in plucking a lesser-known-but-still-famous play from the collection and modernizing it is a minefield, but in Fiennes' directorial debut, he presents a solid piece of work that made me feel both smart for understanding it and savage for enjoying the violence.
The '90s saw several remakes of this kind, such as Richard Loncraine's Richard III(1995) or Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (1996), so we were due for another two hours of actors stomping around a modern world using iambic pentameter to scream at each other. Coriolanus manages to easily merge the two, feeling completely natural and effective.
It is advisable to get a handle on the general plot of the story before jumping into this one--there's no foreplay, just straight to the action. Fiennes plays Caius Martius, a military hero who conquers Rome's rival city of Corioles, led by the Volscian named Aufidius (a spectacularly bearded Gerard Butler). Fortunately for Martius' high-up supporters, war heroes make for easily electable politicians. Unfortunately for them, Martius doesn't have a baby-kissing bone in his body, and he frequently speaks out against the idiocy of the public. His enemies capitalize on his inability to play nice, and even though they bestow the honorable title of "Coriolanus" on him to celebrate the victory, they end up turning the populace against him (after all, banishing people in Shakespeare plays is as common as Snooki having too much to drink on Jersey Shore). Martius grows his own bad-boy beard, becoming "a kind of nothing," and seeks Aufidius to offer all his knowledge about Rome. They take him up on it, but he is persuaded to jump ship by his tough military mama Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) who somehow manages to look scarier in a military uniform than he does. Even though he has obtained a crazy gangsta dragon tattoo on the back of his neck (going "from man to dragon"), he is still a mama's boy in a world full of people that hate him, so things end poorly for him.
This film is like a very classy assault on your senses--the language is smooth and fancy, but the camera bounces around battle scenes following a wild-eyed, blood-covered Fiennes as he guns down countless enemies. It turns out that Barry Ackroyd finished shooting The Hurt Locker and churned out this movie right after, which accounts for all the tension even in dialogue scenes where people are sitting on nice couches. The effect is similar to having your throat grabbed by the Monopoly guy--it's still an affront, but when it involves spats, it's somehow okay.
I wasn't previously familiar with the story and am surprised it is one of the less-performed plays. Fiennes captures the frustrating quandary of a man who is unable to broadcast a false image of himself and his thoughts, even at great personal cost. This guy simply cannot play the game, and there is some honor in that. Of course, there's also a lot of heartache and turmoil, and not even mom can smooth it over.