Caius Martius 'Coriolanus', 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 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 refuses to support him, Coriolanus's anger prompts a riot that culminates in his expulsion from Rome. The banished hero then allies himself with his sworn enemy Tullus Aufidius to take his revenge on the city.
I need to be honest. I'm not a huge fan of William Shakespeare. I respect his talent, admire his contribution to the world of theater, and, on occasion, become wrapped up in the tragedies, comedies, and historical chronicles that comprise his work. But pray, if thou canst see fit to forgive mine doltish ignorance, methinks I can't embraceth the Bard's use of archaic language...especially in a modern-day movie. Watching 'Coriolanus,' producer-director-actor Ralph Fiennes' updating of Shakespeare's tragedy, I spent so much time trying to decipher and interpret what the characters were saying, the drama lost its immediacy and some of its potency, becoming a stiff, stilted enterprise. Call me narrow-minded, but it's hard for me to accept actors in modern dress spouting dialogue in a tongue that hasn't been used in centuries. It just seems pretentious and artificial.
This personal prejudice undoubtedly colored my view of 'Coriolanus,' and despite fine acting by an accomplished cast, and a valiant attempt to energize the drama with a number of large-scale battle scenes, I felt utterly detached from the characters and narrative. Don't get me wrong; 'Coriolanus' is a well-made movie, the themes it addresses still resonate today, and I commend those involved with caring so deeply about preserving the piece's authenticity, but hard as I tried, I just could not break down the barrier between the screen and me.
Updating Shakespeare is always a tricky business; sometimes it works, but most of the time there's a disconnect between the modern setting and the play itself. Either the action doesn't translate well to the present day or the speech patterns seem phony. Live theater handles such challenges better, as the communal experience of the performance and immediacy of the actors allow the audience to be more forgiving of certain foibles. But the colder nature of film often keeps us at arm's length, which is why I feel traditional interpretations of Shakespeare work far better on the screen.
The original 'Coriolanus' tells the true-life tale of a disgraced Roman general who, after he's rebuked by the tribunal for his anti-democratic views, renounces his country, then leads a vengeful assault against it, aided by his former arch enemy. Shakespeare was reportedly attracted to the story because its theme of government malcontent paralleled a British peasant revolt and various London charter reforms in the early 1600s with which he was intimately involved. With the world in a continued state of flux today, as evidenced by various civil uprisings and government atrocities in the Middle East and the Occupy Wall Street movement that has swept across the U.S., 'Coriolanus' continues to be relevant, so its production is more than an exercise in self-indulgence by Fiennes.
Fiennes tries hard to take the artsy out of Shakespeare by transplanting 'Coriolanus' to the present day and replacing Roman warriors with camouflaged guerillas brandishing heavy artillery. Yet by remaining largely faithful to the original Shakespearean text (which is adapted by screenwriter John Logan), there's a pretension that pervades the film and keeps it from connecting with audiences. Granted, Shakespeare's verse is far more poetic than any dialogue Logan could write, but it's also awkward in this day and age, even when emanating from the mouths of such esteemed actors as Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave, who all but steals the show as Coriolanus' influential (dare I say manipulative?) mother.
Fiennes also chooses to keep the Roman setting intact - a strange decision, considering the drama might have had more impact had it been relocated to a global hotspot. Though Europe's economy is far from stable, it's tough to accept all the strife and violence afflicting modern Rome. The brutality, however, is easy to buy, as are the political machinations and skullduggery that fuel the story.
As a director, Fiennes possesses a fine visual flair. He keeps his camera moving and favors swift edits, and as a result, the film is briskly paced. As an actor, though, he's even better, capturing the brooding, egotistical nature of the title character and exhibiting a macho strength that's both imposing and appealing. Gerard Butler as his adversary-turned-ally struggles to match him and seems a bit ill at ease in the Shakespearean realm, as does Jessica Chastain as his faithful wife.
'Coriolanus' didn't move me. I was impressed by the spectacle and admired some of the performances, but the characters seemed to lack dimension and their plights didn't stir my soul. Plenty of rage is present, but subtleties of emotion come at a premium and there are only glimmers of the complex conflicts and agonizing choices that define the best of Shakespeare. Faithful followers of the Bard may love this interpretation, and Fiennes' audacity and vision might seduce other filmgoers as well. It just didn't seduce me. Like the tale's hero, Fiennes has guts. And unfortunately, like the tale's hero, his master plan doesn't pan out as expected.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Coriolanus' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case, which includes a standard-def DVD. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, previews for 'My Week with Marilyn,' 'The Iron Lady,' and 'The Artist' precede the full-motion menu with sound effects.
'Coriolanus' sports an attractive, slightly gritty transfer that highlights the drab nature of war. Colors are muted, but occasional bursts of vibrancy nicely perk up the picture. Light grain maintains a film-like feel and well-pitched contrast provides a fine sense of depth. Militaristic greys predominate, but the textures of uniforms come through well and subtle variations of shade keep the eye engaged. Black levels are solid and fleshtones remain stable and true throughout the film's course.
Background elements are always easy to discern, with exterior countryside scenes exhibiting marvelous levels of detail. Close-ups are sharp, too, showing off the dirt and grime of battle, and the beautiful creases and weathering of Vanessa Redgrave's ever luminous face. Shadow delineation is good, with no incidents of crush muddying sections of the frame, and no banding, noise, or pixelation crop up either.
Lushness is not the strong suit of 'Coriolanus,' nor should it be, but this solid effort stunningly preserves the rough-and-tumble feel of the film.
One might not expect a Shakespeare film to possess a high octane soundtrack, but 'Coriolanus' delivers with a powerful DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. Surround activity is surprisingly rich, with bullets whizzing across the rear speakers and heavy artillery producing room-shaking bursts of potent bass. Subtle atmospherics are also well rendered, and solid stereo separation across the front channels lends a more immediate feel to the drama.
Dynamic range is expansive, and no distortion creeps into the upper or lower registers of the scale. Dialogue is generally clear and easy to understand, though some mumbled exchanges are difficult to comprehend, and various dialects obscure some phrases, and episodes of silence are clean and devoid of any stray noise. All in all, no imperfections mar this bold, active track, which rivals that of any big-budget action movie.
Just a couple of extras adorn this release, but there's enough meat to satisfy the film's fans.
Credit Ralph Fiennes with taking a giant risk in filming and updating one of Shakespeare's most notable historical tragedies. 'Coriolanus' is an impressive production, filled with gritty scenes of conflict, relevant themes, and fine performances by a stellar cast, but unless you're a true Shakespeare aficionado, you might not be captivated by the tale's presentation. Sticking to the original text lends the piece authenticity, but will also alienate audiences who have trouble relating to and deciphering the archaic language. Supplements are thin, but high-quality video and audio give the disc a shot of adrenaline. 'Coriolanus' is definitely worth a look, but it might not be everyone's cup of tea. It wasn't mine.