‘Coriolanus’ stays true to Shakespeare

By Hannah Friedstein


One of Shakespeare’s less popular Roman tragedies becomes one of today’s most powerful portraits of war in Ralph Fiennes’ film, “Coriolanus.” Shakespeare’s tale of a mythic war hero seeking revenge on his enemies in ancient Rome initiates timeless images of desperation, famine and chaos of war.

Although the language stayed true to Shakespeare, the politics and realities of this military account are all too familiar to today’s audience. This adaptation of the original play exhibits a solid delivery, but it seems to have fallen flat at the box office, ranking 44th domestically in its opening weekend, according to Box Office Mojo. Competing with the number one movie, “The Hunger Games,” “Coriolanus” has yet to receive the attention it deserves.

The film is set in what appears to be present day Rome, opening with shots of rioting citizens angry over the restricted grain supply. The anticipation builds as the citizens rattle on the gate outside the grainery, awaiting the unveiling of the war hero turned enemy of the people, Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes).

Fiennes delivers a powerful first impression of quiet contempt as he scowls at the people who hate him. He is truly enveloped in this character as the audience witnesses the transformation from contained anger to beastly and animalistic rage. Civil unrest is put on the backburner as war with the Volscians demands Caius’s attention.

In the city of Antium, Caius meets his true enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) in one-on-one combat, which fortunately ends in the survival of both. Following his success in battle of the city, Corioles, Caius is given the name, ‘Coriolanus.’ In his moment of fame, Coriolanus’ mother pushes him to run for consul. Although this move goes against Caius’ contempt for working with the people of the state, he eventually gives in to his mother’s wishes.

However, his pride is not tolerated by the citizens, as they see his attempts of redemption as mockery. Tribunes of the people scheme against him and lead the people to cry for his exile. This leads Coriolanus back to Antium to team up with Aufidius to take down the city that turned against him.

In Fiennes’ directorial debut, he delivers a commanding and brilliantly brutal film with an amazing secondary cast. Fiennes flawlessly delivers Shakespeare’s lines while his face is smeared in blood, creating a duo of visual and auditory splendor.

Complimenting his ferocity is Vanessa Redgrave who plays Coriolanus’ mother. The strength in her performance deserves much praise as she is seen kneeling in front of her son, persuading him not to seek revenge on Rome and ultimately kill his own flesh and blood.

Alongside Redgrave, Jessica Chastain takes the challenge of playing Virgilia, Coriolanus’ wife. Chastain beautifully and lyrically combines fear and love for her dangerous and threatening husband.

Screenwriter John Logan, best known for his work in “Gladiator” and “The Last Samurai,” is a perfect match for such a sophisticated military story. Taking the original play and tightly fitting it into two hours is a true feat. His work, fueled with sound mixer Ray Beckett, creates such a commanding and powerful portrayal of battle that compliments Fiennes’ performance so well. Beckett also did the sound mixing for the film “The Hurt Locker,” which also highlighted the booming bass of exploding bombs and staccato beats of bullets being fired.

Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, who also worked on the “The Hurt Locker,” is a fine choice for his ability to highlight even the slightest silhouettes hidden among the shadows of a Volsican camp. Hand-held camera techniques work perfectly to reflect the chaos of both the war between Coriolanus and his accomplices and enemies.

Through impeccable acting and incredible sound, “Coriolanus” proves the true animalistic tendencies and moral dilemmas of a war that tears a state apart.

Hannah Friedstein can be reached at [email protected]