Adapting Shakespeare for the screen is a tough thing to do, especially in a modern age when people have a great deal of trouble simply understanding the dialogue. One common method is to reconfigure the adaptation so it takes place in a contemporary setting. That’s what Ralph Fiennes opted to do with Coriolanus, his directorial debut. If only the effort was a success.
Coriolanus is not one of the more popular Shakespeare plays, and there’s good reason for that. Whether the play is great or not, it’s definitely inaccessible. The political minutiae are practically impossible to get through. For this reason, Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan make an admirable attempt to cut as much “fat” out of Shakespeares words as possible. This version of Coriolanus, set somewhere that resembles some kind of Eastern European city, strips the story down to its most base elements. That would be a good thing, except the result is a film completely lacking the nuances of great Shakespeare.
The other big problem with the film is Fiennes’ directorial and visual approach. Everything is shot to look rough and gritty, and there are tons of big close-ups and shaky camera movements. It looks bad, but it’s also lazy. One scene, in which several characters fight and shout in front of an angry mob becomes almost comical, with basically a series of shots of characters putting on their biggest “evil angry yelling face” on.
Bright spots in the film are few and far between, but one notable such spot is Vanessa Redgrave as Caius Martius Coriolanus’ mother. Her presence nearly saves the long confrontation scene in the final act. Unfortunately, she only nearly saves it. The staging and the acting from everyone else just doesn’t work. The acting isn’t bad by any means, but it doesn’t fit with the gritty directorial style. It’s a mash-up that just doesn’t work. And that’s kind of the story of this entire film. Coriolanus is not quite a “bad” film; it’s more like an admirable misfire.