"Nature teaches beasts to know their friends."
Coriolanus is the Shakespearean tragedy originally written circa 1605-1608, so it's definitely a little jarring when you see what director and star Ralph Fiennes (who you probably know better as Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series) has decided to do with it.
The play revolves around the title character, Caius Martius (Fiennes). Later dubbed Coriolanus, he is a decorated war hero for his battles against the Volscians and their leader, Aufidius (Gerard Butler). After returning to Rome, he is greeted with a ceremony celebrating his combat accomplishments (bestowing him the play's eponym), but a few politically insensitive outbursts later and he is banished from Rome for his frustration with the plebeians and his hatred of popular rule. He is seen as a traitor and is forced to leave, where he later allies with Aufidius to do battle with the city that exiled him.
Much like Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, which replaced guns with swords in its "MTV-generation" update, Fiennes's Coriolanus is set in the Macbook Pro-avec-Skype era. The monologues originally in the play to deliver exposition are presented as newscasts and debate talk shows, and the fight scenes are more akin to video games like Call of Duty than anything else. It's clearly 2011 — or at least, somewhere very close.
Having never read the original play in its entirety, I couldn't tell you how much of this film adaptation is abridged. At about two solid hours, however, it seems to encompass a very generous scope of the source material. And while that's good for Shakespeare addicts and English majors, the film probably could have been cut even further, meaning the 2011 version remains overly long and laden with pacing issues.
With a star-studded cast of classically trained actors, you'd think Coriolanus would be better than it ultimately is. The problem, however, is not in the acting, or even the writing (heaven forbid I critique the Bard). Nope, it's definitely the direction.
They say you shouldn't direct the film you're starring in. While I wouldn't deem that to be a cinematic law (Canada's own Xavier Dolan has had immense success with his two directing features that he's acted in), Fiennes should have stayed away from the director's chair.
The art direction isn't what I'm referring to. It's a daunting challenge to modernize anything, and most people are skeptical when they hear Shakespearean English dialogue, so I'll credit Fiennes for taking a chance. The update to modern warfare works, but I don't think that's enough to save the film entirely.
Unfortunately, the biggest issues lie in the cinematography and editing. The camera angles are rarely static, and when they are, it's a blessing. Perhaps Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet is made for the MTV generation — but the hyper-fast edits and shaky-cam close-ups of Coriolanus better reflect the MTV stereotypes of having zero patience. When you're dealing with 400 year-old dialogue that's often deeply metaphorical, you'd think they would have taken their time with it. But they don't. It's a shame, and a messy one at that.
These technical faults can't be due to a mediocre DoP or editor. It's undoubtedly in the stylistic choices made by the director, and I think Ralph Fiennes expected better results in the decisions he made. Luckily, the acting is flawless — likely because some of its stars were trained for the stage before the screen. Jessica Chastain, who plays Virgilia — Coriolanus's wife — studied Shakespearean drama at the prestigious Juilliard School in NYC, for example. Fiennes trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Etcetera.
It just doesn't add up, and the result is an adaptation that had a lot of potential, but was marred along the way by gritty production decisions.