I haven’t read the Shakespeare play that this film is based on and have never seen any other production of it. It felt pared down, but appropriately so. It reminded me a little of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus: the story of a Roman commander who gains glory on the battlefield only to be humiliated and destroyed at home.
Coriolanus’ tragic flaw is pride, which prevents him from kneeling before the people and asking for their benediction in allowing him to be their ruler. Deeper than that, however, is that despite his fierce and unbending machismo and warrior spirit, he is something of a mama’s boy. (His mother, Volumnia, is played magnificently by Vanessa Redgrave in the film.) Coriolanus is mocked as such by his greatest enemy, Aufidius, but the other interesting aspect of this adaptation is the unspoken homoerotic attraction between the two men. Their physical battles are wrestling matches in which they practically kiss as they try to stab each other to death. The psychosexual aspects of all this are fascinating and very powerful.
There aren’t really any sympathetic characters in this story, except for perhaps Senator Menenius and Coriolanus’ wife, Virgilia (played by the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain). But both of these characters are so ineffectual, in different ways, that even they lose sympathy. What we are left with is a very grim story about overbearing, hateful aristocrats and stupid, selfish plebians. Sounds like fun stuff, eh? As usual, Shakespeare is able to find the humanity in all of this and holds up the mirror to our all-too-human flaws.
This setting for this production is contemporary. War is fought with tanks and rifles, and people watch it on TV. Director (and Coriolanus) Ralph Fiennes follows in Baz Luhrmann’s footsteps in cleverly using bits of Shakespeare’s text to put in the mouths of newscasters or in background graffiti. Hand held camera mimics TV documentary footage, and the movie switches between different film stocks or video formats to give a feeling of found footage collage. Between that modern visual approach and the pared down language, this definitely feels like an attempt to reach a non-Shakespeare-savvy audience, which I think is great.
If only Coriolanus and his mother come out as fully-developed characters, it seems enough. That Volumnia ultimately comes off as more of a bad-ass than her macho war-hero son is certainly a compelling enough irony.