17 January 2012

The Churl with the Dragon Tattoo

Of course Ralph Fiennes picked Coriolanus for his directorial debut and of course he didn't consider anyone apart from himself for the title role and of course he cast Gerard Butler on account of the latter's "great personal charisma." I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to see the movie but decided it was better to sit through two hours in the big screen at the BFI Southbank than to have to endure three-plus hours in a theatre at some later date. So, what did I think of the film? Well, I didn't hate it and although I found myself almost drifting off during some of the more complicated politics in the middle, I persevered and thought Fiennes did a decent enough job with a crap play. Some spoilers follow.

Fiennes plays Caius Martius Coriolanus, son of the proud feisty Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), husband of the ethereally beautiful Virgilia (Jessica Chastain), father of a kid who get about two lines of dialogue, and friend of Menenius (Brian Cox). And he will totally have his vengeance on the people of Rome, who turned on him and exiled him soon after his moment of glory.

Fiennes' Rome is contemporary and is supposed to be any-city but it definitely has a very Balkanesque feel to it. As the film opens, the Romans are at war with the Volscians, led by Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), and Caius Martius proves his prowess on the battlefield, capturing Corioles and earning the name Coriolanus, having added two new scars to the 27 he already has. He is soon elected consul but his political rivals, including Sicinius (James Nesbitt), aren't best pleased and manage to turn the masses (who have never been Coriolanus's biggest fan) against him, forcing him to flee the city. For the first half of the film, we see Fiennes' unflinching, pale blue, Snape eyes staring impassively from his blood-drenched face. During his exile, he grows some hair and a beard and cleans his act up and goes to find Aufidius, begging his old enemy to let him fight with the Volscians against Rome. Aufidius is suspicious at first but eventually agrees to take Coriolanus on as a partner in his attempt to take Rome.

The Romans find out about this development, mainly from the BBC News 24-like news coverage from "Fidelis TV" (presented by Jon Snow!), and send Menenius to try to talk Coriolanus down but to no avail ("this Martius is grown from man to dragon," he says--with a tattoo to match, it seems). Luckily, Mommie Dearest is more persuasive, telling Coriolanus to think of his wife and his soon and the children, goddamnit. And because he clearly has something of an Oedipus complex, he agrees to a peace treaty between the Romans and the Volscians. Aufidius, who has been standing around uncharismatically, has been won over too, "Yeah, OK. I was totes in tears too," he says. But before the ink on the peace treaty is even dry, Aufidius starts to think that he has been gazumped by his rival and sets his goons loose on our anti-hero (spoiler: he has more than 29 scars by the end of the film). "Dude, I thought you agreed with my momma," Coriolanus complains. "No, dude, you tricked me," says Aufidius. "It's all those long words you keep using. And that crazy old-fashioned slang. I can't keep up, man."

The first half of the movie is very violent but as with many Shakespeare plays, the final act is very talky and drags a bit. Butler's performance was mediocre and Chastain didn't have very much to do other than stand around looking pensive and trying to find the way of Grace; Redgrave, however, was excellent and Fiennes was convincing as the unlikable, arrogant Coriolanus. The screenplay contained only dialogue from the original play and this worked well, in general, other than seeming to confuse Gerard Butler at times. Fidelis TV, which pops up to update us throughout the film, was a clever idea but I found it a bit distracting--a little like a cross between Private Eye's Nursery Times and Brass Eye; besides, Baz Luhrmann used a TV newsreader to play the prologue in his Romeo + Juliet. Coriolanus is not a cheerful film and it's not really my kind of film, but if you like explosions and/or Ralph Fiennes, you will probably love it.

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