There’s a reason that Coriolanus isn’t one of Shakespeare’s more commonly-produced plays. Essentially, it boils down to a thin storyline. At its heart, Coriolanus is about Caius Martius, an overly critical soldier who turns up his nose at the commoners. He wants to deprive the plebeians, or anyone who didn’t help physically fight for Rome, of their right to its grain, and is consequently hated by the people. But his success in conquering the city of Corioles against his nemesis Tullus Aufidius earns him both the title Coriolanus and the new-found support of Rome’s citizens. Upon his return, his overbearing mother convinces him to run for consul in the government. But Martius finds himself unable to play politics; he’s as critical of himself as he is of everyone else, and would rather take the path of humility when it comes to his victories. He’s consequently sabotaged by the Roman Senate, and in turn rails against them and the state of the populist government, and is banished from the city. So he finds his nemesis Aufidius and allies with him to lead a siege on Rome in revenge. He’s eventually talked into standing down and making a peace treaty between the Volscian army and Rome by his mother, whereupon Aufidius kills him for his betrayal.
That may all seem like a lot to take in from a few sentences, but it plays out very simply over the running time of a play or film. Coriolanus is, in essence, a morality play, as Martius faces the consequences of both his unwavering ego, and the thirst for vengeance that comes from his strict adherence to his own principles. It would work quite nicely on the level of a Greek tragedy in a one-act that runs about 45 minutes to an hour. But in a full-length play, without the kind of supporting characters and storylines that characterize so much of Shakespeare’s work and help broaden the telling of most of his plays, we’re left with a lot of talking heads and the same notes being hit over and over again.
With this specific production, Fiennes has grafted the story of Coriolanus onto a contemporary Middle East setting. There are certainly some gains to be made from the desert locales and the immediacy of some of the armed conflict, but it also diverts away enough from the action of the play just to feature some explosions and gunplay that it takes away more than it adds. It almost plays like they’re pausing the play for 10 minutes to show you a reel from The Hurt Locker to help make it relevant, and then it’s back to some more Shakespeare. And Fiennes’ decision to capture some of the exposition via cable news outlets is a clever one, but it doesn’t help the problem of too many talking heads for too much of the running time, and so ultimately doesn’t really work, either. The more intimate, non-news, government-set talking head scenes feature Brian Cox as Menenius and James Nesbitt as Sicinius showing what good, well-trained actors can do with Shakespearean dialogue, and Nesbitt in particular has an ability to speak the speech trippingly off the tongue so that it seems quite natural and almost never comes across as “Shakespearean” in the failing, affected way of so many bad actors and productions that give classic theatre a bad name. In fact, this can be said of the entire cast, and Gerard Butler in particular is a very pleasant surprise. I was a bit worried he might be out of his depth here and the weak link in the cast, but he’s actually one of the strongest members and finds a lot of colors to often repetitive speeches.
Fiennes the director supports Fiennes the actor in spewing a lot of colorfully venomous speeches, and watching his bald-pate spit and hurl invectives, he looks like a cross between a turtle’s head out of its shell and a snake, only a shade from Voldemort even without the make-up. But it doesn’t change the fact that Fiennes is hitting the same two or three notes over and over again. The cast is skilled enough that none of them give flat one-note performances, and they’re able to find nuance in the dialogue, but the dialogue itself is so single-minded and repetitive that there are only so many ways it can be reiterated. Jessica Chastain, playing Martius’ wife, has even less to do here than she did in The Tree of Life, and spends most of her scenes watching the news reports on the television with teary, wide eyes. Vanessa Redgrave does a fine job in her scenes with Fiennes, but again, it’s a case of the speeches themselves being extremely repetitive.
Finally, while I understand why Fiennes set his film in the Middle East and there are certainly parallels with the governments of today and the ways in which we’ve been unwisely digging ourselves into wartime conflicts without self-questioning or self-awareness, there are enough problematic elements to the shift that it doesn’t really work. Many of the scenes in Coriolanus are intimate and personal, and they don’t really feel believable in a contemporary wartime setting. Whether it’s the long dialogues between Martius and Aufidius, or the way they throw down their guns and fight one-on-one with their service issue combat knives, it feels forced, false, and untrue. Which is a huge problem when the overall tone you’re pursuing is one of naturalism. And because all of director Fiennes’ focus is so fixed on making the contemporary setting work, and in finding a high level of contemporary naturalism, there’s nothing left to put into finding ways to keep the repetitiveness and redundancies at bay. I wasn’t a fan of Julie Taymor’s Titus, which was exhausting to watch and felt like an 18-hour film. But in comparison, at least she was constantly trying things with the production design and kept the movie interesting and the pace clipping along (yes, even though it felt like it was clipping along for 18 hours). Here, despite a top-notch cast all functioning at a very high level with the material, it’s ultimately an even bigger snoozefest.