In the rather startling CORIOLANUS, new to DVD, Blu-ray and standard digital platforms this week, actor-turned-director Ralph Fiennes smuggles an obscure Shakespeare tragedy into the contemporary war movie genre.
Epic and bloody, Coriolanus tells the tale of Caius Martius (Fiennes), a fierce military general in “a place calling itself Rome.” In the Bard’s original play, Rome is actually Rome (and Martius a historical Roman general). In Fiennes’ update, though, Rome is a depressingly modern and familiar sight: a city in the midst of war, coming apart at the seams. Time and place are deliberately indeterminate. This Rome could be Beirut in the ’80s, or Belgrade in the ’90s, or Damascus today. In the DVD extras, Fiennes says he threw in bits of Brooklyn and Shanghai, too.
After Martius conquers the rival city of Corioles—swords and shields replaced with guns and tanks—he is given the title Coriolanus, and eventually appointed Consul of Rome. What happens from here falls squarely in the realm of Shakespearean epic tragedy.
If you don’t know the story of Coriolanus already, you’re better off going in without too much advance information. As his name suggests, Martius is a creature of war and has little time for notions of popular rule. Pride is his tragic flaw, and the film connects some dots between military culture and tyranny; ancient Rome and tomorrow’s headlines.
The script by John Logan (Gladiator, the upcoming Skyfall) retains Shakespeare’s original dialogue, of course, and it’s a joy to watch the veteran cast deploy such musical language. Shakespearean dialogue can be hard to follow, even for us recovering English majors, but Fiennes gives each scene such a sturdy structure and arc that the narrative thrust is never lost. The language comes in from unexpected vectors, too—exposition is sometimes provided by the anchorman on the TV in the background.
Gerard Butler stars as Martius’ rival warlord Aufidius, Brian Cox is the general’s right-hand man and Jessica Chastain plays noble Virgiilia, the lovely Missus Martius. But Vanessa Redgrave steals the show, absolutely chewing it up as Martius’ mother, the ambitious Volumnia.
Coriolanus features convincing and quite violent battle scenes, with plenty of bullets and blood. Some sequences are a little too stagey, though, and the film’s modest budget shows in generic art design and underpopulated crowd shots.
But overall, Coriolanus is a remarkable achievement, a classic epic tragedy that looks for all the world like a gritty, contemporary war thriller.
Formats: DVD, Blu-ray and standard digital platforms.
Extras: A short, underwhelming behind-the-scenes featurette and a director’s commentary track from Fiennes.