I love William Shakespeare – more specifically, I love his plays. I think that they were as relevant as social and political criticisms in the 16th century as they are now, in the 21st century. It it not a contentious point that they are timeless and filled with a quality that keeps them from ever aging or becoming irrelevant. Why then is it that so many people hear the word “Shakespeare” and a groan ensues? Perhaps it is because to them, William Shakespeare’s works are overlong, boring and plodding fancy dress parties, with very little entertainment value? It is a position I have seen many take. However, looking a bit deeper into the context of The Bard’s work will show us that there are stories within that are able to enthrall and entertain anyone. This past weekend was the four-hundredth anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death – so what better way to usher that momentous occasion than by writing about what I consider to be one of the finest representations of his work ever put on screen.
The best part about Shakespeare’s plays is that it can be updated to a modern context without losing any spark or narrative credibility (10 Things I Hate About You is still the very best adaptation of Taming of the Shrew to ever exist). Perhaps the most effective modern adaptation of a Shakespearean play is that of Ralph Fiennes’ recent adaptation of The Tragedy of Coriolanus (or simply just Coriolanus). It serves two purposes, which I will discuss in detail in the following review. The first is Coriolanus as an adaptation of Shakespeare, and the other is Coriolanus as a film. Both of which are very important in understanding the exquisite and detailed adaptation of perhaps Shakespeare’s most underrated tragedy. The film also serves as the great thespian’s directorial debut, something I am always fascinated by, and love to analyze and see how a familiar performer is able to handle an entire film.
There is absolutely no shortage of Shakespeare adaptations. For example, the period between 1990 and 2000 saw four different Hollywood adaptations of Hamlet (Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 adaptation, starring Mel Gibson, Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 adaptation, where he played the Dane along with an all-star cast, Michael Almereyda’s 2000 adaptation where Ethan Hawke plays a very moody, depressed Hamlet that is just a breath away from plunging into a Nirvana song at any moment. Of course, the greatest adaptation of Hamlet has to be The Lion King, for reasons I care not to explain at the present moment). Let us not even get into the glut of Shakespeare-inspired films – it can be said that all films can be traced back to John Ford’s The Searchers – in some way, I disagree – I theorize that all films can somehow, in some bizarre way, find their roots in the work of William Shakespeare.
However, I digress – the point is that Shakespeare’s plays are so brilliant and timeless, filmmakers never seem to tire of making them, or putting their own spin on them. One has not truly “arrived” as a performer, whether on stage or screen, unless one has performed in a play by Shakespeare. Cinematic representations of Shakespeare’s works allow stage-bound thespians to flex their cinematic skills, and also to allow actors that would not be able to handle The Bard’s work on stage to still play a character in one of the countless adaptations – therefore, with this, we arrive at the point of this long-winded argument – Ralph Fiennes did a pretty great job of adapting Coriolanus. The most fascinating part of this film? It is the first (and so far, only) adaptation of Coriolanus made for the screen – a play that is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most socially and politically relevant, had never been made for cinemas prior to this. This means there isn’t really anything else that we can compare it to – of course, there are filmed versions of the stage play (such as the recent Tom Hiddleston-starring version), but cinematically, there has never been one.
How wonderful that the person that changed this and brought Coriolanus to life is Ralph Fiennes, one of the most talented actors working today. He is a man that doesn’t only understand Shakespeare – Shakespeare is visceral and vital to his existence. His adaptation of Coriolanus is absolutely exquisite – and watching the film, it seems to be the work of a far more experienced auteur rather than a first-time director – is it that Fiennes just learned from his exposure to some of the greatest filmmakers in history, or was Fiennes simply just talented enough to handle a film like this and make it extraordinary – or did he have the crucial key to finding the perfect balance between Shakespeare and cinema? We can theorize for hours, without coming to even the shadow of a conclusion. I simply think a combination of all three factors is what the film resulted in being. Fiennes clearly seemed to bring his absolute A-game to this film, both as a director and as a performer, and I hope that Fiennes continues directing (he did move from Shakespeare to Dickens, recently having directed The Invisible Woman).
Anyway, rapidly we approach the film itself. Fiennes is of course wonderful – majestic, brutal and unbelievably endearing, as expected. Not much needs to be said about Fiennes is Shakespeare – it feels out of place to analyze when an expert comes out to play, but I’ll just simply state that Fiennes is exactly as good as you’d expect him to be. The biggest surprise comes in the form of Gerard Butler, who actually shows that he is capable of a performance that doesn’t rely on gimmick. I wish Butler would get more roles like this, because there is talent there, just hidden by the cloud of terrible films he seems to enjoy doing these days – a memo to Mr. Butler: a paycheck is wonderful, but you have the potential to be a great actor, so occasionally consider a film like Coriolanus – it may not make you a tremendous amount of money, but it will certainly boost your profile as a serious actor. Vanessa Redgrave also needs not be critiqued, because she has been doing Shakespeare since before I imagine my parents were even born, so I wouldn’t expect her to be anything other than perfect as the sweet and charming Volumnia. Coriolanus came out in 2011, also known as The Year of Jessica Chastain, where she starred in so many great films within that year and had her star rise rapidly. It may not be her best performance (let alone her best performance that year), but it is certainly proof that Chastain deserved that meteoric rise to fame that she received from Coriolanus and other films that year.
Coriolanus is a brutal, unflinching and beautifully made adaptation of a play that does not receive the praise and adoration it deserves. Ralph Fiennes is exquisite, as it is the entire cast. The film itself is one of the most ingenious and brilliant adaptations of a Shakesperean play, and it will surely entertain people, and maybe even make the hardened critics of The Bard forget that this captivating film could possibly be a story from the writer they so needlessly despise. I urge everyone to take a look at Coriolanus – it is just an amazing adaptation from (and without any exaggeration), the greatest playwright to ever live.