Friday, 20 January 2012

Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes, 2011) Review

They'll let me go if I never direct again. Ralph Fiennes in Coriolanus (2011)...

After several hours of intense brain-racking, note scribbling and screenshot browsing, I've come up with something good to say about Coriolanus, and it's this: Gerard Butler doesn't suck quite as hard as usual. Don't get me wrong, he blows more than a 24/7 brothel, but that's a considerable improvement when we consider efforts like The Ugly Truth (Luketic, 2009), which reaches levels of such excremental awfulness as to become a legitimate environmental concern. But that a not-quite-suicidally-bad Butler is the best thing about Ralph Fiennes directorial debut, a Balkans-set adaptation of Shakespeare's long-forgotten political epic, shouldn't really be taken as a note of recommendation. Allow me to elaborate...

A place calling itself Rome... is the turbulent backdrop for Coriolanus, a story of exile and revenge in which lauded soldier Caius Martius (Fiennes) is framed as an enemy of the people, outlawed, and forced to become an ally to his sworn enemy, the brooding Aufidius (Butler). That's a rather sweeping summary, and I should highlight that it is Martius' running for consul (despite his loathing of the "commoners") which allows slimy politicians Sicinius (James Nesbitt) and Brutus (Paul Jesson) to brainwash the people into revolt. Eventually the ex-solider rebrands himself Coriolanus and, joined with Aufidius, plans an assault on Rome. Also worth mentioning is Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), Martius' authoritative mother, who with full-blooded gristle acts as the film's most commanding force, fighting for her son until the very moment she must surrender herself to her knees, begging for his return.

Introducing Shakespeare's most talkative text by way of a firefight, John Logan's screenplay denies the audience any immediate form of character association, instead suggesting allegiance and motive through briefly-glimpsed news tableaus. Too quickly our (anti)hero is established as a dog of war - fierce and proud, primal and bloodied - and since no effort is made to investigate his personal relationships (Jessica Chastain, as Martius' wife Virgilia, is woefully underused), we're left with the hollow shell of a once complex character. The real problem here is Logan's loyalty to the source (Shakespeare's language is kept intact, save for one or two contemporary blemishes), as the Bard's iambic pentameter is broken down into bite-size exposition, hurrying through the poetry to guarantee a bum-friendly running time. But the narrative setups still feel protracted by the language, which works at direct odds with the accelerated action sequences.

The opening skirmish is a numbing sensory blowout, with Fiennes' employing hurried pans, quick-zooms and heightened sound design to immerse us into the 'reality' of conflict. But his second-rate vérité style - conceived alongside Hurt Locker DP Barry Ackroyd - is completely disorienting, falling somewhere between Green Zone (Greengrass, 2010) and Infinity Ward's Call Of Duty franchise. Nicolas Gaster's jagged editing is partly to blame for the geographical displacement, but Fiennes frequently (and inexplicably) obscures the action in close-up, never allowing us room to breathe or gain perspective with the opposing sides. I ask you this: if we can't place characters in a firefight, and gauge their distance from the enemy, how can the filmmaker possibly create tension? The battle climaxes as our rivals come stubble-to-stubble, wresting their way through a window and tussling for control of the blade that will slit the other's throat. But the brawl has no dramatic weight, for no drama has been established.

From the frontlines of war Logan launches us into political rallies, courtrooms and news stations, but the shaky-cam aesthetic is retained for dialogue scenes which require static observation. Most speeches are framed in long takes, but these feel like such anomalies because Fiennes never establishes a rhythm for us to settle into. The same charge can be leveled against the film's smorgasbord of performances, none of which hit the right - or at least a consistent - tone. Fiennes and Redgrave are completely stage-bound, expressing every emotion in sweeping physical gestures and locked jawlines, bellowing their lines straight into the auditorium's heart. Juxtaposed against a performance like Chastain's, who finds a naturalistic tempo to aid the film's grounded realism, they just come off as hammy. Everyone tries their hardest, but the problem once again comes down to scripting - the Bard's language just feels awkward, with bold declarations such as "He is the devil!" coming off as laughably overwrought for the present-tense setting.

The worst offender is Fiennes himself, who has brought his Coriolanus straight from the Almeida boards. Gnarled veins, spittle-streaked fangs and his fearsomely furrowed brow converge into an expression of pure animosity at the film's climax, where the actor seems intent on destabilizing gravity. "BOY!" he wheezily regurgitates toward Aufidius, confusing him for the Boy Wizard. It's a depressing state of affairs that in this scene Butler is the commanding presence, engaging for his quietness and steely eyes. The more I think about it though, his performance is less a good quality of Coriolanus, and rather a marginally less shit one.

Coriolanus is in cinemas now.

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