Skip to main content

There is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger.


Coriolanus
(2011)

I’ll readily admit that I don’t know my Coriolanus from my elbow but I suspect I have a glimmer of why it is one of Shakespeare’s less-staged tragedies.

As proficiently mounted as Ralph Fiennes adaptation is,  the problem could be down to the title character himself. On some level we need to be able to empathise with Coriolanus (played by Fiennes) in order to be involved with the fate he drives himself towards but, unlike certain of the Bard’s better-known tragic heroes, we are allowed little insight into his psyche. He’s a born and bred warmonger, with no sympathy for the masses (they only deserve grain if they’ve fought for their country) and a level of bravery that borders on sheer bloodthirstiness. His disinterest in courting public approval might be seen as a better side to his nature (an unwillingness to prostitute his beliefs to curry favour) but it could just reflect a prideful temperament; he considers himself better than those he would not condescend towards.

Without soliloquies to expose a more complicated nature, we feel little for him even when those around him conspire to bring about his downfall. Led by a militaristic nature, he is content to remove civil liberties and, provoked to ire, condemn popular rule. It seems the play has been a popular choice during periods of political strife, and certainly one can see the undercurrent of opposing positions (freedom versus restriction) that informs it.  The Plebeians propose a more democratic Republic, Coriolanus (a ruling Patrician) a more prescribed one, and Menenius (also a Patrician) sits somewhere in the middle (the status quo).

For the most part, Fiennes decision to furnish his adaptation with a contemporary setting is a successful one. I tend to be slightly dubious of such gimmickry, but ultimately what counts is whether it enhances the telling. As a director, Fiennes’ choices are muscular and cogent. His choice to rely on handheld camera is easy to appreciate, as it lends immediacy and energy to the proceedings.

The problem comes with the self-consciousness of the trappings; the choice of restaging dialogue and commentary as TV coverage (complete with Jon Snow) feels like an over-familiar crutch. Fiennes makes it coherent, but it is the most obvious of possible choices. And that’s my general take-away; he works hard to make his film gritty and powerful and he largely succeeds, but his decisions are never truly inspired ones. I would like to see him take on other directing projects, however. There’s a confidence here that deserves to be unleashed on l formal material, where he feels less responsibility to the text.

I’m uncertain if Fiennes directorial choices are to blame, John Logan’s adaptation, or the Shakey himself, but certain crucial moments lack sufficient weight to convey the choices that characters reach. In particular, I had problems buying into Tullus Aufidius’ (Gerard Butler) embrace of his arch blood enemy Coriolanus out of sympathy with his plight. As Fiennes shoots it, Aufidius makes the choice virtually on a whim; maybe this is a point where the modern setting works against timeworn honour codes. Additionally, I was unconvinced by the decisive plea-bargaining of Coriolanus’ mother. Even given the Oedipal undercurrents between the two of them, building to Coriolanus’ change of mind through long, stony silences only underlines the impenetrability of the character.

Fiennes has filled out his cast with some interesting players. Butler makes a believably rough and ready Aufidius, while Vanessa Redgrave, as ever, is peerless as Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia. Jessica Chastain doesn’t make an enormous impression as his wife Virgilia, but the main plaudits go to Cox as smooth peacemaker Menenius and James Nesbitt as slippery provocateur Tribune Brutus. Fiennes is a rock-solid centre but, as noted, it is not the most accessible of roles.

Updating the setting of Shakespeare’s plays may work to the advantage of the text, bringing out timeless relevance in the material, or become a distraction, with the danger that the trappings run the engine (of course, you could say the same of revelling in period costumes). Fiennes certainly avoids the latter, but I don’t think he is always able to make the workings of the Roman state sufficiently clear; one might argue that is an acceptable sacrifice as long as one gets the gist, which one does.

In addition, for a play of explicitly political discourse, he seems curiously uninterested in attaching specific meaning to its retelling. The location filming in Serbia may invoke superficial commentary on events there. Yet Fiennes’ only statement appears to be how best to “perform” the play, rather than to overlay /recent current world events over its content. Some reviewers have cited the Arab Spring but this suggests casting about for the kind of markers that have informed past revivals, rather than reflecting the director’s intent.

***1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018)
(SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop.

Welcome to the future. Life is good. But it can be better.

20 to See in 2020
Not all of these movies may find a release date in 2020, given Hollywood’s propensity for shunting around in the schedules along with the vagaries of post-production. Of my 21 to See in 2019, there’s still Fonzo, Benedetta, You Should Have Left, Boss Level and the scared-from-its-alloted-date The Hunt yet to see the light of day. I’ve re-included The French Dispatch here, however. I've yet to see Serenity and The Dead Don’t Die. Of the rest, none were wholly rewarding. Netflix gave us some disappointments, both low profile (Velvet Buzzsaw, In the Shadow of the Moon) and high (The Irishman), and a number of blockbusters underwhelmed to a greater or lesser extent (Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Terminator: Dark Fate, Gemini Man, Star Wars: The Rise of the Skywalker). Others (Knives Out, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) were interesting but flawed. Even the more potentially out there (Joker, Us, Glass, Rocketman) couldn…

It’s like an angry white man’s basement in here.

Bad Boys for Life (2020)
(SPOILERS) The reviews for Bad Boys for Life have, perhaps surprisingly, skewed positive, given that it seemed exactly the kind of beleaguered sequel to get slaughtered by critics. Particularly so since, while it’s a pleasure to see Will Smith and Martin Lawrence back together as Mike and Marcus, the attempts to validate this third outing as a more mature, reflective take on their buddy cops is somewhat overstated. Indeed, those moments of reflection or taking stock arguably tend to make the movie as a whole that much glibber, swiftly succeeded as they are by lashings of gleeful ultra-violence or humorous shtick. Under Michael Bay, who didn’t know the definition of a lull, these pictures scorned any opportunity to pause long enough to assess the damage, and were healthier, so to speak, for that. Without him, Bad Boys for Life’s beats often skew closer to standard 90s action fare.

They seem to be attracted to your increasing nudeness.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was put in mind of Shazam! watching Pokémon Detective Pikachu, another 2019 tentpole that somewhat underperformed based on expectations. Not particularly due to any plot resemblance, but because both movies fall apart under the weight of an overblown and underwhelming finale. In the case of Shazam! that may be more damaging to its prospective sequels (if they keep the team of super-adult kids), whereas Detective Pikachu will simply have to struggle with a whole heap of unnecessary expositional baggage attempting to imbue the proceedings with emotional resonance.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

You’re a slut with a snake in your mouth. Die!

Mickey One (1965)
(SPOILERS) Apparently this early – as in, two years before the one that made them both highly sought-after trailblazers of “New Hollywood” – teaming between Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn has undergone a re-evaluation since its initial commercial and critical drubbing. I’m not sure about all that. Mickey One still seems fatally half-cocked to me, with Penn making a meal of imitating the stylistic qualities that came relatively naturally – or at least, Gallically – to the New Wave.