A Roman general (Ralph Fiennes) faces invasion from without Rome and civil unrest from within and quells both decisively. His success is so great that he is elevated to the highest office as first counsel of empire but his lack of political savvy makes thing go badly for “Coriolanus.”
Ralph Fiennes makes his directorial debut with the ambitious production of William Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus, which some consider too difficult to adapt to the big screen. The result is a technically deft but sterile in its execution.
“Coriolanus” starts with a bang as Caius Martius (Fiennes) faces the ever-increasing food riots gripping a hungry Rome. His decisive actions impress the ruling counsel and, with the barbarian Volsces attacking along the Roman borders, Martius is made general and dispatched immediately to stop the invasion. This is the best part of the film with the violent, deadly battles shot in documentary style, ending with an exciting hand to hand knife fight between Coriolanus and Volsce general Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler).
Alas, once this excitement is over and the talking begins is when things become uneven with its multiple story threads and many characters. One thread has the Roman leadership deciding to make Coriolanus the most powerful man in Rome. Another follows the rivalry between Caius Martius’s mother Voluminia (Vanessa Redgrave) and his wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain), with mom wielding the most clout with her son. Then there is the riled up citizenry of Rome who object to their new leader’s cold and dour attitude when they expected him to be a politician, with glad hands and big, warm smiles. Then there is the whole Volsce army sitting on the border. There are more threads but you get the picture – there is a lot, maybe too much, going on here.
Similar to another screen adaption one of the Bard’s plays, the 1995 “Richard III” with Ian McKellen and Annette Bening, “Coriolanus” is set in a vaguely modern time of the Roman Empire. Costuming is spectacular in its diversity and detail and production design and art direction are both first rate. The complex story, though, makes for a daunting task for first time director Fiennes and, while he handles himself quite well behind the camera, he took on a perhaps too ambitious a project for the first time out the gate. Still, I give it a positive B-
Fiennes is fierce and he's cast his first film well, giving Gerard Butler an opportunity to remind us what he can do outside of lame romantic comedies and allowing Jessica Chastain another feather in her cap. But this is one of those films that's easier to respect and admire than to love. It's just a little bit chilly despite the passions of its characters. B
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