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Sunday, May 20, 2012

CORIOLANUS -- DVD review by porfle

This is one of those movies where the early notes I jot down are pretty unfavorable, but as it begins to grow on me I find myself having to rethink what I've written about it.

Not that I'm totally sold on director-star Ralph Fiennes' updated Shakespeare drama CORIOLANUS (2011).  Ever since filmmakers started trying to transplant the Bard's plays verbatim into modern settings, the results haven't always been pretty.  For one thing, I just don't think 21st-century characters can recite Shakespeare's poetic prose in a casual way without viewers being constantly distracted by the utter incongruity of it all.

But Fiennes, along with screenwriter John Logan, tries to get us accustomed to this early on with Senator Menenius (Brian Cox), of "a place that calls itself Rome", awkwardly conversing with Coriolanus' mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) and wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) about the military hero's recent victory over Volsce invader Aufidius (Gerard Butler).  Cox, always a fine actor, struggles manfully while the great Vanessa Redgrave does as well as anyone possibly could to make her lines seem conversational.

After we get through this gulp of unwieldy dialogue, the rest doesn't taste quite as bad.  This is especially true in the more confrontational scenes such as Coriolanus' vicious hand-to-hand battle with Aufidius, a former friend turned arch enemy, as they utter some of literary history's most elegant putdowns.  (The gritty urban warfare scenes themselves are nothing special, sporting the usual artless, faux-newsreel shaky-cam, so it's a good thing the film focuses on drama over action.)

Later, when Coriolanus is prodded into running for high office despite his steadfast unwillingness to pander to the people ("Good mother, I would rather be their servant in my way, than to sway with them in theirs"), it's fun listening to his devious political foes Sicinius (James Nesbitt, "Murphy's Law") and Brutus (Paul Jesson) spinning their plot against him and exhorting the fickle crowds to demand his execution or exile.  A sort of televised "town meeting" provides the setting for one heated exchange, while TV news anchors and political pundits serve as the play's chorus.

Cox and Redgrave have settled comfortably into their roles by this time and start reeling off the Shakespeare like the old pros that they are.  When Coriolanus' forced exile takes a drastically unexpected turn, Redgrave is particularly outstanding when the prideful mother must beseech her son to alter his current course of vengeance against Rome and its people. 

Fiennes himself dominates the film with a heady combination of Shakespearean intensity and tough-guy bombast (with the help of the burly Butler as Aufidius), wading through early scenes in a horror-show mask of gore before settling into the character of the battle-scarred warrior unfit for political gamesmanship.  The latter persona is the more interesting, as Coriolanus stands unyielding against the internal corruption he feels is more destructive to Rome than its external enemies. 

The DVD from Anchor Bay and the Weinsteins is in 2.35:1 widescreen with Dolby 5.1 sound and subtitles in English and Spanish.  Extras consist of a director's commentary and a "making-of" featurette.  The film also comes in a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack.

If turning a Shakespeare play into a modern-day war movie with the original dialogue intact sounds like a dumb idea to you, you're not alone because that was my first impression as well.  But the conceit gradually becomes more interesting than awkward, ultimately generating a strange fascination that I found pretty involving.  You may want to turn the subtitles on and read along with the actors while watching CORIOLANUS, because the dialogue goes by pretty fast and, more than anything else, it's what this movie is about.

Buy it at
Blu-Ray/DVD combo

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