Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Postmodern takes on Shakespeare that amp up the military regalia, comment on 24/7 media and celebrity culture and draw parallels to today's political controversies are nothing new. Ian McKellen, in particular, enjoyed success with a starring turn in Richard Loncraine's adaptation of Richard II in 1995. That adaption featured a martial, guns-blazing tone and was set in an alternate reality Britain with a steampunk 1930s aesthetic bedecked with hyper-fascistic pomp and pistols.

Now it is Fiennes' turn to take on a larger-than-life Shakespearean warlord as the titular general Coriolanus in this modern retelling, though Fiennes is both director and star here and the aesthetic is firmly in the 21st century rather than some alternate take of the past.

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The backdrop is a repressed, militarised modern Rome where Caius Martius 'Coriolanus' , a revered and feared Roman general, has returned from war. His target was his arch-enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), from the nation of the Volscians, a setting clearly aping a war-torn Balkan nation from recent decades. The battle scenes here are an intense sensory assault that sets the tone for the rest of the film, the high-tech US Army-style battledress and equipment, fast cutting and hand held shots, plus intercut news footage clearly bring to mind recent coverage of the Iraq and Afghan wars as well as action films.

Scarred from battle and now weighed down with expectations of a new political career following the celebrated victory, Coriolanus is soon at odds with key power players in political circles in the Rome government and is hated by many of his fellow citizens, who believe he views them with less than contempt. This is true, Coriolanus is personally brave but cannot bring himself to stoop to political games, and is openly vocal about this. However, his controlling and ambitious mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) and political veteran Menenius (Brian Cox) cajole him to seek the powerful position of consul.

Pushed too far in a public debate - in this instance a televised studio debate, an amusing if not obvious dig at today's political charades on breakfast television couches - Coriolanus's vicious outburst prompts a riot that culminates in his expulsion from Rome. Now determined to bring vengeance down on the city that he once fought for, Coriolanus is prepared to do anything, even ally himself with his sworn enemy Aufidius.

So far, so obvious perhaps, and viewers might well feel Fiennes is being a little too on the nose when Channel 4 News anchor John Snow appears on screen as himself in certain segues to update us on Coriolanus's fortunes as chorus/narrator. But this film has real strengths and the modern trappings do ultimately end up aiding rather than obscuring Fiennes's adaption of this study of power, war and authority.

The script adaptation by writer John Logan is refreshingly stripped right down, which helps keep the pacing tight, and a clutch of strong actors carry the dialogue naturalistically, which really makes the whole piece very accessible even to those with no knowledge of the play. In particular, Redgrave offers a masterclass in how to make the most out of only a few minutes of screen time, and Cox settles down effortlessly into the role of the world and war-weary veteran politician.

The film also looks great, with a rich and varied colour palette and costume array, plus crisp camerawork from Barry Ackroyd combined with nifty editing. Though it's perhaps not a drastically surprising take on Shakespeare, it is an intense one that flows well.

Reviewed on: 17 Oct 2011
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Contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare's play of political power and intrigue.
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Director: Ralph Fiennes

Writer: John Logan, from the play by William Shakespeare

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, James Nesbit

Year: 2011

Runtime: 122 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


London 2011

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