Judge Gordon Sullivan once directed a Pig Latin adaptation of Hamlet.
Nature Teaches Beasts to Know Their Friends
If literary critic Harold Bloom is to be believed—and depending on your ideological orientation, that's a pretty big if—William Shakespeare is at the center of the Western literary tradition, the most towering of literary figures. There are many reasons for such an assertion, but the most obvious is that it seems that Shakespeare's plays are both absolutely fixed and completely mutable. This means that two totally different groups of people at two totally different times can look at the exact same text (which remains solid) and provide two different interpretations that fit their time and place (making them mutable). In some sense, Shakespeare is the center of Western literature because he, more than any other author, can be reinvented by anyone.
Cinema has been especially fond of this kind of reinvention. Some of our earliest films were Shakespeare adaptations. Since then we've seen everything from relatively faithful stage-bound adaptations to directors using the means of cinema to add a new twist (like Laurence Olivier delivering Hamlet's soliloquies in voiceover rather than in person). As cinema finds more and more tools (like CGI and smaller cameras), Shakespeare continues to get reworked in more and more fantastic ways. Though it's not quite in the same league as Romeo + Juliet or Titus, Ralph Fiennes' directorial debut, Coriolanus, is a visually potent update of a Shakespeare tragedy that tells the play's basic story while making it relevant for modern audiences.
Facts of the Case
Caius Martius, who becomes Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes, Schindler's List), is a heroic soldier in Rome. Though he is a hero and a leader, he cares nothing for the plight of Rome's citizens, who go hungry. Though he is in the middle of putting down a rebellion by Aufidius (Gerard Butler, How to Train Your Dragon), Martius is politically outmaneuvered and banished from Rome. He seeks revenge by offering his soldiering services to Aufidius.
There are two keys to producing a solid Shakespeare adaptation. The first is the film's look. It's too easy to fall into the trap of period settings by going hog-wild on detail. This tends to bog down films and is one of the reasons so many adaptations of Hamlet aren't stunning; too much time spent on authentic costumes doesn't add much. Similarly, trying too hard to update the look can be a waste as well.
Coriolanus sits comfortably in the middle. It's a modern-dress adaptation that mixes contemporary costumes with settings that look timeless (like columned architecture). More importantly, the film realizes it's a political story, so the film is told like a contemporary political story. There are normal, dramatic scenes mixed in with news footage, handheld camera footage of battle scenes, and allusions to other films. It feels appropriate and natural, rather than excessive and forced. On mute, no one would know this was an adaptation of Shakespeare.
Of course, no one wants to watch a Shakespeare adaptation on mute, and that's why the second important thing to get right is the casting. If the cast can't say the words—as often happens with lesser adaptations, especially from American thespians—all is lost. I'm consistently amazed at how much easier Shakespeare's dialogue is to understand when it's performed by someone who truly understands their character, and Coriolanus is littered with such actors. Fiennes is obviously the centerpiece of the film, and he gives an amazing performance filled with the bravado and complexity of his character. However, he's only one of the many actors who do an excellent job. Butler is wonderful as a soldier, Brian Cox is devilish as a political actor, Vanessa Redgrave is scary, while Jessica Chastain is surprisingly vulnerable. The actors all have the dual problem of getting out the sometimes-convoluted dialogue, while also portraying their characters, and everyone is a winner. This might not be the best-cast Shakespeare adaptation on film, but it's near the top.
Coriolanus (Blu-ray) is also a knockout. The 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded image is fantastic from beginning to end. Detail is appropriate, grain is natural, and colors are muted by well-saturated. Some of the video footage used in the film can look a little too digital, but that's hardly the fault of this excellent transfer. I was especially impressed by the general lack of noise in the image, despite some darker scenes with lots of movement. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is equally impressive. Though I occasionally found the transition from combat to dialogue scenes to be a bit jarring (since the combat is mixed a tad louder), this is otherwise an exemplary track. The all-important dialogue is clean and clear from the center, and the film's combat scenes are appropriately immersive with good low end.
Extras start with a commentary from Fiennes. He's an actors' actor and that's what shines on this track. Of course, he discusses the challenges of filming his first feature and all that, but the meat of this commentary is his discussion/explanation of the characters in the film. He appears to know them and their motivations to a startling degree. I feel like after the commentary watching Coriolanus would be a totally different experience. There's also a short EPK-style featurette that mixes talking-head interviews with scenes from the film; it's fine but fans would probably appreciate a bit more on the film's production. A second disc is a DVD copy of the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Coriolanus is a great adaptation of Shakespeare and the kind of actors' tour-de-force we don't see enough of in contemporary film. For some reason, though, I don't feel like it joins the ranks of the absolute best Shakespeare adaptations. I'm not sure if its too contemporary or if explicitly political films are just harder to pull off, but Coriolanus isn't quite perfect. Also, for those who hate Shakespeare. this one might be a bit of a stretch. Though its action scenes and significantly wordless passages might appeal to Shakespeare haters, there are still an awful lot of the Bard's words to parse.
Coriolanus proves Ralph Fiennes was paying attention all those times he was in front of the camera. His directorial debut is a great adaptation of Shakespeare, a visually interesting drama, and a showcase for some of the best actors working today. It's worth at least a rental for fans of the actors or of Shakespeare, and Fiennes' excellent commentary make it worth considering for purchase for those who enjoyed the film.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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