Shakespeare's elegant verse translates beautifully into this tale of modern warfare... As long as you have the patience for it.
Up until last year, Shakespeare's Coriolanus has never been adapted to film. Is that not astonishing?
Ok, there was a BBC series from the 80s, and it had some decent actors and direction behind it. I watched a little; it's a pretty much your standard BBC Shakespeare. This film is very different.
Coriolanus is tells the tragic tale of a Roman general, Caius Martius (played in the film by director Ralph Fiennes), who wins glory in battle and runs for consulship (similar to presidency) of Rome, urged on by his ambitious mother. The play is about patriotism, rivalry, jealousy, ambition and pride. There's a fair bit of Freudian psychology involved too, but since that wasn't invented when Shakespeare wrote it's a testament to his grasp on human nature that he hits on themes that will fascinate humanity for centuries to come.
The film adaptation takes the story and retells it as a modern crisis; still set in Rome, and still using middle-english dialogue, a la Romeo + Juliet. The film opens with a montage of scenes that establish the conflict in Rome - a conflict that could easily be ripped from tomorrows headlines. People riot over food shortage, armies roll across urban landscapes in tanks and soldiers fire guns into smoke clouds, just like they do on the news.
The world-building is great, and serves to make the situation a believable one, evoking images of conflicts such as the Arab Spring, and the Yugoslav Wars. News reports replace several messenger characters; talk show hosts replace people discussing in the marketplace; a scene where two men exchange news is replaced with an interrogation scene captured on video tape - the filmmakers make great use of modern technologies to make this medieval tale a timeless one.
There are several scenes of action, of a couple of different types that I discerned. There are the modern combat scenes - like The Hurt Locker and Green Zone. These are competently executed, but short and a little lacking. It's hard to tell who's shooting who or what the objective is, and it is quite a stretch to believe in the soldiers spinning sophisticated rhymes as the bullets whiz past, but at least they look good.
Then there are the knife fights, something I loved about this movie. Because Shakespeare wrote scenes in which characters fight hand to hand, and because guns have since done away with this fighting style, Fiennes had to find a way to make it believable when Martius and Aufidius confront each with knives. There are some clever staging tricks, such as when Martius runs out of bullets and is suddenly set upon by an enemy soldier from around a corner. Then there are fights between Martius and his enemy, Aufidius (played by Gerard Butler). The two have a mutual hate, which compels them to lay down their guns and engage "beard to beard". These fights are intense and visceral: The two actors put on a furious display of testosterone which, underscored by the illustrious dialogue, paints a powerful picture of their rivalry.
All the actors are fantastic, with Vanessa Redgrave as the clear standout playing Martius's mother. The course of the conflict is set by a number of her monologues, and she sells them well. Her relationship with Fiennes as Martius is the core of this film.
Martius displays an interesting sort of arrogance - almost humble in it. He doesn't want to show his scars to the people; he doesn't want to hear tales of his own victories; he doesn't want to lie to the people in order to achieve political power. He is set in his ways. Glory must be honestly through battle, not through manipulation or exaggeration like the tribunes. He knows that he is an accomplished general, and considers himself above those around him because of it. He is proud not out of self love, but out of principle.
So as a thematic work of character and relationships, it's true to its roots, and uses the film medium effectively to underscore it's ideas. If I were to lay down criticism, however, I would say that it was poorly marketed. The trailer sells it as a modern war film, with emphasis on the fighting and shooting. As I said before, these elements are lacking. If you go into this film expecting a mindless action movie, rather than a true Shakespearian adaptation (olde words and all), then you might be disappointed.