Adaptations of Shakespeare: not for me. In fact, Shakespeare's plays, page or stage: not for me. Shakespeare's verse is a different story, and yes, I know he wrote the plays in verse, and yes, I…know. I majored in English. I tried with that guy, but always with the mistaken identities and the central problem repeated umpteen times and the soliloquies that restate the central problem again, bloody tears, jewels of metaphor, witches and fools and daughters, patented inappropriate maternal avidity, the wife's a kookbag, I killed someone crucial and also that boy over there is a girl so let's talk about it some more, but first here's Falstaff to quaff and annoy, huzzah! …That, any of that: not for me.
How, then, can I review Ralph Fiennes's Coriolanus in any useful way? A critic is generally talking about two different things (or three, depending on how you look at it) in varying proportions: what is the work trying to do; how worthwhile is the work's goal, which is part of the first thing, usually, but also sometimes a larger/separate conversation; and how well does the work do what it sets out to do. I can still assess things I don't care for, in other words. An oatmeal-raisin cookie is not for me, either, but people who do like them probably want to know whether it's burnt on the bottom, what's the raisin ratio, that kind of thing.
So! I disliked a few things that fans of Shakespeare likely will not mind, to wit: redundant whispering matches about Martius's discomfort with pandering to the populace; the vein-popping monologues on the same topic; yet another scary-mommy figure balanced on the hysterical verge. If you want to adapt the material, adapt it. Do some cutting of the speechifying so you don't have to overcompensate pace-wise with docu-style handheld work in the battle scenes.
But I also disliked a few things that have nothing to do with the source material, starting with the casting. Vanessa Redgrave is getting her customary Mount-Rushmorean notices for her customary mannered, clinical performance. She's very good, and she has a few lovely reaction shots, but you've seen it a dozen times before. Lubna Azabal (her first appearance onscreen is rendered in my notes as "uch, that irritant from Incendies") is just as one-and-a-half-note in her small role here. And what's with the three-line peace treaty labeled "PEACE TREATY" and apparently thrown together by a PA in MS Works?
Jessica "I Am All, And Am In All" Chastain is slightly overmatched here, but Fiennes is fantastic, whether he's almost gagging on the platitudes the consul "race" forces him to utter, revealing the character as stunted beyond straightening in his conversations with Menenius (Brian Cox, also wonderful, nuanced and natural), or ragefully repeating "boyyyyy" in his suicide-by-Aufidius scene. When he had his director's hat on, I wish he'd pushed the play a little harder and bent it a little farther; it's timeless subject matter that updates well, but he could have come at it less reverently. But doing so wouldn't have allowed him to rivet the viewer's attention as an actor, and he does. The real battle scene is the one raging inside Martius constantly, and Fiennes brings that to the fore without letting it take him over.
I can't say I "enjoyed" the film; again, not for me. But I find the source play less tedious than most Shakespeare, which is a help, and if Shakespeare and adaptations thereof are for you, I believe this is a worthwhile and thoughtful one, not too painstaking and with a couple of excellent performances.
Tags: 31 Days 31 Films Brian Cox Coriolanus Jessica Chastain Lubna Azabal Oscars 2012 Death Race Ralph Fiennes shut up Elizabethan theater tropes shut up Falstaff shut up raisins Vanessa Redgrave William Shakespeare