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Coriolanus (2011)

"Before viewing" talks don't have spoilers, but since there's no "After viewing" talk for this one, comments may have spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

Without a doubt, Coriolanus is Shakespeare done well. Intense and engaging, the film uses the play’s original language and cities but sets it in modern times, reducing the historical distance between viewer and story. Rather than swords, it’s machine guns. Rather than messengers, it’s television news. But the characters are all Shakespeare: complex, conflicted, honorable, despicable, pitiable, laudable — portraying a wide range of our human struggles to make of our lives what seems good and right.

Rome is beset with unrest. Food shortages have the masses demonstrating in the streets — but there are huge silos of grain for the upper class. Military commander Caius Martius, whose forces protect the grain, despises the common people, earning their hate. Yet Martius’ military valor and victories, which protect Rome and its people, bring him high praise. When Martius is nominated for high office, the dichotomy between hate and praise for him mixes with his own pride and independent spirit, launching personal and national crises of honor and identity. Running time: 122 min.

The cast swirling around Martius makes a rich milieu for exploring the human condition: wife, mother, son, political foes and allies, those who care about him and those who despise him. Victor Frankyl once said, “Between stimulus and response is the freedom to choose.” The cast embodies a varied range of stimuli, and Martius’ responses bring out important questions. How does our pride insidiously infect our views of ourselves and “our people” versus others? How does that affect our ability to clearly see an honorable path? How might we let a respectable desire to live honorably lead subtly to pride and condescension? When our own failings bring others to act against us, will we see the connection? Or will we see only justifiable cause for revenge? Even though few of us have Martius’ position of military skill and power, the intensity of the film’s exploration and the richness of its central characters can bring such questions out for all of us.

The filmcraft in Coriolanus is first rate. All the performances are strong, but most notably, Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave, as Martius and his mother, bring solid power to the entire film, as does Brian Cox as Martius’ political ally. In his directorial debut, Fiennes shows strong command of pacing, scene framing, flow, use of music, and other aspects of the craft. Regarding music, Fiennes does very well by having little of it — the onscreen work is so strong that there is little left that music might add. That said, Ilan Eshkeri's score is strong. All of this good work strengthens our focus on the tension of Martius' struggles and choices.

The film is very much worth the time — especially if you like Shakespeare. However, do know that Coriolanus' intensity extends to onscreen battles and injuries.

Among the explorations of valor, pride, and honor in Coriolanus are several scenes of how these play out in battle. These scenes are intense and at times bloody. The characters' emotional and moral struggles are also intense. The language is all Shakespeare.

  • Director:Ralph Fiennes
  • Screenplay:John Logan based on the play by William Shakespeare
  • Leads: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain, Brian Cox, Paul Jesson, James Nesbitt
  • Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd
  • Music: Ilan Eshkeri

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