23 January 2012

Review: Coriolanus

(Dir: Ralph Fiennes, 2011)

It’s interesting how just one single creative decision can ruin a film, rendering it's message impotent. This is the case with Coriolanus, the directorial debut from Ralph Fiennes who also stars as the title character. The creative decision in question was to stick with the original Shakespearean dialogue, which ultimately proves to be the films major failing.

Shakespearean dialogue is not the easiest thing to understand when it’s written on the page - it can take multiple readings of a single passage of text just to fully grasp it’s meaning. In the theatre there is undoubtedly a greater sense of clarity for the audience as this is the medium his works were written for. On the screen however the effect can be jarring, as it’s rarely seen and not the way we're used to being talked too. In Coriolanus all of the characters quote thick chunks of Shakespearean dialogue as if ripped straight from the page, and for the entire duration of the film this remains completely impenetrable. After sitting through all 2 hours of the film I came away with a very rudimentary understanding of the plot and what had happened on screen, but no appreciation of what the real story was or any intended deeper meaning. The experience was akin to watching a foreign language film without subtitles and having only a very basic knowledge of the language.

The dialogue issues are further compounded by the setting of the film. Shakespeare’s works have in the past proven to be adaptable to modern day situations and settings, but the placing of Coriolanus is confusing. It’s modern day, there has been war and it’s set in a town or city which is given the name ‘Rome’. Except this looks nothing like what we know of Rome, looking instead rather Eastern European. The story appears to be essentially political, but both the nature of the political processes that are key to the plot and the political positions held by the characters are completely unclear. It may be set in the modern world, but there is nothing here that anyone who is not already familiar with the details and machinations of the original story can grasp hold of to give any sense of familiarity or understanding.

All of this is a shame as the acting appears to be rather good. Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave stand out due to the strong and powerful characters they're playing, but they are ably supported by Gerard Butler, James Nesbitt and Jessica Chastain. Everyone attacks their role with much conviction and passion, all seemingly certain that they're putting in an award worthy performance. However this all proves pretty worthless when the audience is clueless about why these actors are emoting so passionately.

I went into Coriolanus not knowing anything more than what the poster tells you and that the critics were rating it highly. It's a rare occurrence for me to go into a film so blind and it's quite exciting when that happens, but perhaps if I had known more I'd have thought twice about watching it. I wonder if the handful of people who walked out of the cinema during the film were in the same situation? 

Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet proved it is possible to successfully transpose this type of dialogue to the screen in a modern setting, but that had the benefit of being one of the most widely known stories in the world and was done in a very stylish manner. Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known works and this adaptation lacks any style, shot with a cold realism and some distractingly bad camerawork at times. A heavy weighty drama it may be, but unless you know the story or have the ability to decipher thick swathes of Shakespearean dialogue on the fly, Coriolanus is not a film I would recommend.

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