The most well known example of Shakespeare’s works being adapted into a modern setting, but with his older form of the English language intact, is Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet (1996) which had all the aspects of the modern age (cars, guns, etc) but kept the Shakespearian dialogue. It was an attempt to get younger people more interested in Shakespeare, it worked to an extent that Leonardo Di Caprio became a teenage heart throb and starred in that little known film Titanic. The film is also more popular among audiences then many Shakespeare adaptations. Ralph Fiennes also adapts Shakespeare’s Coriolanus in a modern setting (with Belgrade standing in for Rome), and this is also a play with some relevant political undertones when considering the political climate of today.
Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s more complicated (or so I have been told) and lesser known plays (I never heard of it until I heard Fiennes discussing it on Mark Kermode’s and Simon Mayo’s Film Review programme on Radio 5 Live). The play concerns Caius Martius (Fiennes) who returns to Rome a wounded war hero after an intense battle with the Volscian army (led by Gerard Butler). Caius Martius wishes to be the Consul of Rome, but is banished and intends to take his revenge on the city.
In the year 2000 Ralph Fiennes starred in the leading role of a stage play adaptation of Coriolanus, but felt he had some unfinished business with the role, and thus directed one of the very few TV productions/films of Shakespeare’s little known play. First off let’s make it absolutely clear that despite the modern setting Fiennes decides to keep the Shakespearian dialogue. At first it rather jars with the modern setting, but the dialogue is so well utilised by John Logan that one becomes accustomed to it rather quickly despite it, on occasions, presenting the difficulty of the dialogue being hard to follow, especially if one is not knowledgeable of Shakespeare’s work. That said, if you concentrate enough, one can understand the basic plot as the actions of the characters are helpful in reading the correct things in the dialogue allowing one to comprehend it better. If you put the effort in the dialogue barrier should not be too much of an issue.
That said, the script is superb, the play consists of very long monologues and Logan picks out the greatest bits of the dialogue from the play with ‘there is no more mercy in him then there is milk in a male tiger’ being one of the finest lines in the film, a line of such brilliance that only Shakespeare could conjure up. These lines were delivered with great power by a superb assembled cast in which Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave and Brain Cox are highlights. Even Gerard Butler and James Nesbitt deliver impressive turns, but Jessica Chastain lacked the screen presence and power in the her voice to make the dialogue have the effect that it should have had, but to be fair it is her thousandth film of the year. Fiennes and Redgrave are far more convincing at delivering the sheer colossal force of Shakespeare’s words with Fiennes televised banishing rant being a major highlight, and an example of dramatic acting at its finest.
There are some flaws; the inclusion of Jon Snow (a Channel 4 News anchor to those outside the UK who are unaware of who he is and are also wondering why the British find it so funny) is unintentionally hilarious, his inclusion invited a few chuckles from audience members. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, who worked on the 2009 Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker (a film in which Fiennes had a minor role), seems to have the shot the film in a blender. The shaky camera gives an almost documentary feel (there is news footage of events), but it does occasionally become so over done its rather annoying and becomes rather difficult to actually see what is going on during the fight sequences. One further issue is that the film’s pace does lag somewhat in the second act, but does gather pace in time for the final and most important act.
Looking back at the past year one can clearly see that this film is a product of our time, the Arab Spring, London riots and as the population clash with the ruling classes these events are clearly mirrored in the film. The themes of the play still resonate today as the 400 year old play makes an interesting modern day political thriller. Similarities can be made to the brutal war in which Serbia fought in the 90s, and further more similarities can be made between the totalitarian dictators of Africa who are very rarely seen without full military uniform.
Superb performances and assured direction from first time director Ralph Fiennes (who also gives a stunning performance of his own) make Coriolanus exciting viewing even for non Shakespeare devotees. Coriolanus is a play with political undertones that are extra relevant today as events in the film almost mirror the political world of the last year (and this year). Fiennes has a promising career behind the camera, and Coriolanus is a bright start as it is an intelligent adaptation of Shakespeare’s most complicated of works.