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I can't claim to have ever been particularly well affiliated with the works of William Shakespeare. Besides various teen comedy reimaginings, one or two more serious film takes (chiefly among them, Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet) and an amateur production of Hamlet that I was once fortunate enough to film and edit in Nottingham, I have had very little experience of his work. Having always wanted to see more, but never having taken my chances to, I was more than curious when it was announced that Ralph Fiennes would be working on a Shakespeare play I had never heard of before, in which he would not only star but also direct. Then, when the trailers for the film started coming out, I got even more excited. Here was a Shakespearean experience, modernised into the present day, that looked accessible, mature, brilliantly acted by a great cast, and genuinely cool. Only time would tell if this would be the film to reignite a generation's interest in the eponymous bard. I knew very little of the story and, as mentioned, had never even heard of the play before, but it probably goes without saying that Coriolanus had me hooked.
The citizens of 'a place calling itself Rome' are displeased. Amidst the city's ever-growing food crisis, General Martius (Fiennes) has suspended civil liberties, citing the ongoing war against the Volscian army and his part in winning it thus far as his reasoning. Following an intense battle, in which Martius comes face-to-face with his nemesis Tullus Aufidius (played by Gerard Butler), Martius is honoured by his city's dignitaries, being given the new name Coriolanus and becoming the new favourite for replacing the current Consul. Before this can happen though, he needs to win the voice of the people who despise him, requiring him to eat some humble pie and associate himself with the classes he so looks down on. Unconvinced and insulted by his attempts to patronise them, the citizens rally harder than ever before, demanding a death sentence but ultimately settling for Coriolanus' banishment. Homeless, alone and feeling betrayed even by those closest to him, the once feared and celebrated General will befriend his once true nemesis and set about avenging the city that threw him out. With newfound leadership and a new people to impress, is there any way that Coriolanus can be stopped before a real tragedy occurs?
I have to say, this will not be to everyone's taste. Besides the commitment this team have made to the language of William Shakespeare, making this at times difficult to follow for those not adept in the bard's tongue, it is also a very serious film. Rarely is there a light-hearted moment in Coriolanus and whether or not those few moments are perceived as light-hearted is very much down to the individual's perception. But this is meant to be a serious film, saying serious things, so if you are able to get beyond that then there is much to be celebrated here. The performances are fantastic, right across the board. Fiennes' angry, unreasonable General is a masterclass in theatrical brooding and rage-tinged outbursts. Gerard Butler seems uncomfortable with iambic pentameters at times, not always delivering his lines with aplomb, but suits his part brilliantly otherwise. The supporting cast I can't speak highly enough for, among them Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave, James Nesbitt, Paul Jesson - everyone excels. None more so than the beautiful, mesmerising Jessica Chastain, whose performance in its early stages put me in mind of a more mature Juliet, as played by Claire Danes, but which develops very nicely and with great subtlety as the film develops.
Along with some wonderful performances, the film also looks fantastic. The cinematography is often bleak and rugged, perfectly befitting the mood of the film, but I would like to make special mention of the camera movement here. Some ingenious choices have been made over where to put the camera and how to move it, the effect at times being nothing short of electrifying. Calm, considered monologues are generally met with a still, staring camera, allowing focus not to be put anywhere other than on the character who is speaking. Adversely, frantic, emotional monologues (the best of which are delivered by Fiennes in his character's most incensed moments) are met with a camera uncertain of where it should be, floating around the subject as if uncomfortable, confused - itself frantic by proxy of the characters mood. As well as during monologues, moments of general turmoil - especially during the protest scenes - are met with a camera insistent of swaying around, moving right into the faces of its subjects, determined to make the audience feel involved and claustrophobic. For a first-time feature film director, Ralph Fiennes has excelled here. This is no actor-turned-director vanity project, this man really knew what he was doing and he did it with confidence and no small degree of success.
As I said, this will be a challenge for some, as it certainly was for me. Meeting that challenge, though, has a large amount of reward in it for anyone who chooses to take it on. Another wise choice that was made was to shorten the play, condensing it from what I believe usually comes out at around three hours to a much more friendly two-hour sitting. Whereas this does make the story feel a little rushed at times, it also makes for a much more accessible movie, and one which I will certainly be watching again one day. It's only as serious and difficult as its namesake, which in some sense fits the telling of this tale perfectly, so it's only right that it should be that way, really. Coriolanus gave me everything the trailer promised: a mature, brilliantly acted take on a Shakespeare play that I had not been aware of beforehand, that was gritty, involving, at times mesmerising and definitely very cool. Whereas before I may not have taken my chances when it came to getting to know Shakespeare's work quite as well as perhaps I should, I certainly will be now. And maybe you should too.