Berlin film festival 2011: Ralph Fiennes' directorial debut, Coriolanus

Article published on Feb. 14, 2011
community published
Article published on Feb. 14, 2011
A journey of iambic pentameter through modern-day fisticuffs set in the Balkans won't please your casual cinema-goer, but if you're a Shakespeare fan and want to understand the power of Vanessa Redgrave, stick through until the end of Ralph Fiennes directorial debut. Coriolanus premiered at the 61st Berlin film festival on Valentine's Day.

cori2 Romans in an economic crisis, anarchist activists in the guise of the people hungry for bread, modern-day army gear and televised news reports and debates. The movie's lead actor, producer and director Ralph Fiennes admits that he was part inspired by Australian director Baz Luhrmann's contemporary reworking of the MTV-generational hit Romeo and Juliet (1996). 'The idea has been sitting in my head for ten years since I first played Coriolanus onstage in London ten years ago. I amassed images which followed the story of the play,' he explains. From the mobile phone recordings of the characters taking part in the protests against Caius Martius Coriolanus at the beginning of the movie, in scenes Fiennes says were inspired by recent global events such as Chechnya and riots in European capitals such as Paris and Athens, the film becomes decidedly less contemporary as it moves through Shakespeare's 1607 tragedy of a shunned hero of Rome.

cori5 The unpopular Caius Martius is banished by the people for his tyrannical style, despite his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), wife and son's support for his role as political Consul after coming home victorious from war. He ends up betraying his enemy and one-time ally Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), who himself admits that he 'works a different muscle' in this film. There's lots of blood, homoerotic tussles and dialogue which are there to be enjoyed for what they are: available as they are in scenes faithful to the passion in which the great English playwright's Jacobean words were written, though the character of the mostly passive wife of Coriolanus (Jessica Chastain) feels less convincing.

cori3 Don’t hold your breath for a Dicaprio-Danes rock-and-roll take on Shakespeare. The craziest the soldiers under Shakespeare's hero get in this film is drunkenly shaving each others heads with an electric razor, whilst other costume and sound interpretations remain mute in the movie, which was shot on location in Belgrade. Butler attributes his stage debut to Coriolanus in London, in the same year that Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet was released. 'Beard to beard', the Scottish actor is gruff enough as Fiennes' adversary but not as versed in the 'depths, heights and parameter' of delivery that the legendary thespians Vanessa Redgrave and Ralph Fiennes employ in defending theirselves and their country, oftentimes the same thing. The Berlin audience found his erotic interpretation of Shakespeare's words less believable than Fiennes for example (think the moments between Fiennes and Butler's characters they tell each other were as 'meaningful as their wedding days and nights', and you get the idea). At the opposite end of the spectrum, it is almost as if Redgrave were just having a normal conversation in English.

cori4 The multicultural crowd of contemporary citizens can feel like they slipped off a Channel 4 series and sometimes Fiennes looks as if he is stuck in the look of Voldemort, the villain he incarnates in the Harry Potter franchise. You wish that as Shakespeare has permitted English actors time and time again, that some of the characters in this film take more eccentric qualities in their roles, but they play it straight. Above all this film will have you reaching for your vowels and consonants. Watch especially if you like Shakespeare adaptations and true British haute-theatre talent.