Film review: Ralph Fiennes' 'Coriolanus' is an unsympathetic look at Shakespeare

It's not surprising that Shakespeare remains the most filmed author of all time. (Yes, children, that even includes Stephen King.) In fact, in any given year there are more adaptations of Shakespeare than of anyone else. Public domain status helps, but mostly it's because, well, you know, they don't call the Bard “Immortal” for nothing.

What is perhaps surprising is that some plays almost never make it to the screen. It's probably a safe guess that “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Othello” and “Henry V,” all together, have spawned more films than the other thirtysomething titles combined. Ralph Fiennes' new version of “Coriolanus” — his directorial debut — appears to be the first big-screen adaptation (if the often unreliable IMDb is to be trusted in this case).

In the manner of Ian McKellen’s “Richard III” and Baz Luhrman's “Romeo + Juliet,” Fiennes updates the setting but keeps the literary style essentially intact. A large part of the trick in such hybrids is to reconcile the gap between the Elizabethan language and the more recognizable setting. It provides an excuse for all kinds of cleverness, but risks seeming utterly artificial.

Caius Martius (Fiennes) is Rome's most successful general; after seizing the Volscian city of Corioles, he is granted the additional name Coriolanus. Like many military heroes throughout history, he is being courted to enter politics, a realm he despises. His mother (Vanessa Redgrave) convinces him, against all his instincts, to run for consul (essentially co-ruler of Rome).

His recent triumphs guarantee the support of both the senate and the people. But, when pressed to present himself before the people, the blunt general expresses his utter contempt for them. Despite Mom's pleas to compromise, he ends up in exile, where he bitterly joins forces with his former archenemy, Aufidius (Gerard Butler), to attack Rome. Things do not work out well.

The dialogue in the film still talks about Romans and enemy Volscians, but Fiennes shot “Coriolanus” in Belgrade, automatically invoking the wars that accompanied the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the ‘90s. Fiennes and most of the other principals employ standard stage-Roman accents — i.e., educated Brit inflection — but many of the minor characters and extras are locals with their own accents.

In addition to the battle-scarred urban landscapes, the contemporary backdrop fits most of the story well. The presence of modern arms seems reasonable; and the Roman Senate looks like, well, the Senate we know and occasionally love. The cleverest modernization tactic is the frequent presence — sometimes in the background, other times filling the screen — of 24-hour cable news. Expository passages from the play feel more realistic and natural coming from vacuous anchormen and pompous pundits.

The cast is almost uniformly superb, even Butler, whom I normally can't stand. (Time for a reevaluation?) Redgrave has such a strong presence — appropriate for the role — that she would blow a lesser cast off the screen. Equally terrific is Brian Cox, as Coriolanus' strongest political ally. South African actor John Kani is a problem, because his accent makes his lines virtually incomprehensible.

Fiennes is, of course, at the center of everything, and what might seem like faults in his performance are really inherent issues in the play. But the fault, we might say, is not in the star. For every Romeo or Juliet-type lover in the tragedies, there are two heroes who are not guys you would ever want to know. With Othello, Macbeth and Lear — even the almost cartoonish Titus Andronicus — we are invited into their souls through soliloquies and confessions; but Coriolanus is a particularly unreflective character. His arrogance and self-destructive decisions are a hard sell. Fiennes overcomes much of this through facial expressions, but his Coriolanus still fails to engage our sympathies.

ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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