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Home » Culture and Criticism

19/31: Coriolanus

Submitted by on December 20, 2011 – 6:24 PM4 Comments

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.

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  • attica says:

    Firstly: if there are chocolate chips nearby when the oatmeal cookie batter is being prepared, wherefore would you use a raisin? Forsooth, verily!

    Secondly, the clips I've seen of this (i.e. scenes of Ralph) look riveting. I'm looking forward to it. He confessed to Jon Stewart that when he goes to see Shakespeare, it takes him 15 minutes or so before he's hooked in to the language. Which is heartening to us mere mortals, I tells ya.

    As much as I loved Fiennes's turn as the ennui-and-exhaustion-ridden Voldy, I love him so much better when he ratchets up the urgency to fever pitch. Rrowr.

  • Amalthea says:

    I'm a Shakespeare-loving (with a few exceptions) theatre major and I have to say, your opening paragraph summary of why you hate him is pure brilliance. Everything is just so…true.

    "…and also that boy over there is a girl so let's talk about it some more." Heh.

    Really looking forward to seeing this one so I was glad to read your praise for Fiennes in the role.

  • Cat_slave says:

    I mostly like Shakespeare, but I can recognise the "can't stand that guy (or maybe That Guy)"-feeling – my main subject at the university was Swedish&Scandinavian literature and my second theatre studies and I Can't Abide Strindberg (who is very central in both subjects). Yes yes, the guy might be a genius, but the way he has of droning on and on (words words words) and all that misogynistic shit makes me vomit.

    A good review, I think, because you managed to explain what and why you liked and didn't like, which is hard if you don't like the starting material, so to say.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Thank you! That's what I was trying for.

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