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On Movies: 'Coriolanus' is hurt by modern setting, but worth seeing

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 29, 2012 - A helmeted soldier, bulky with armor and gear, automatic rifle pointing the way, moves slowly and warily through a war-broken urban landscape, stepping with caution through the dangerous debris of battle. The camera follows close behind, moving clumsily, as if carried by another soldier who is also burdened by the accoutrements of modern war. There is danger everywhere.

A scene from “The Hurt Locker?” Not exactly, although the man in charge of the cameras for “Coriolanus” is Barry Ackroyd, who was also the director of photography on “The Hurt Locker.” Choosing Ackroyd to shoot “Coriolanus” suggests what director (and star) Ralph Fiennes had in mind: This is Shakespeare done as a war movie. It features gripping scenes of door-to-door battle and hand-to-hand combat. There are a couple of knife fights that are so realistic they had me worrying about the safety of the actors.

“Coriolanus” is a good war movie. Is it good Shakespeare? Yes and no. The incomparable iambic pentameter spoken – and roared – with such precision by Fiennes as Coriolanus, and Vanessa Redgrave as his ambitious mother, and Gerard Butler as his fierce main antagonist, seems, at times, to be drowned out, literally and figuratively, by the sheer potency of the scenes of murderous guerrilla warfare.

As for moving the play from ancient Rome to a modern city “calling itself Rome,” that truly seems problematic. Shakespeare is often moved to more modern times, sometimes quite successfully – for example, for his 1995 movie version of “Richard III,” Ian McKellen’s successfully changed the setting from the late Middle Ages to a fascist England of the 1930s. But with Coriolanus, the leap in time – 2,500 years – and culture is, at times, just too great.

The characters in the movie seem like ancient Romans, not modern Europeans. These prideful 21st century soldiers and politicians are always beseeching “the gods” for victory and blaming them for difficulties, and the political tangles that snake through the movie don’t make a lot of sense in modern dress. Part of the problem may be that it is difficult to understand what is going on in the first half of the movie.

The story is essentially about the wrath of a soldier, a classic theme for a classical setting. Rome is under siege by the neighboring Volscians. The Roman general who will be called Coriolanus drives back the siege. As a reward, influential politicians nominate him to be Consul, a powerful position that is not really explained in the movie. But he must first be elected by popular vote; and the warrior Coriolanus has nothing but scorn for the ordinary citizens, the voters and he makes his anti-democratic position clear.

The public angrily rejects him, and he leaves Rome in a rage – Coriolanus is usually in a rage – and joins the Volscians, headed by his former archenemy Aufidius (Butler). Coriolanus declares, “I will fight against my cankered country with the spleen of all the under fiends.”

If you’re not familiar with the play, the intrigues in the first half of the movie may be very difficult to follow. The screenplay by John Logan (“Gladiator”) of necessity considerably shortened the text, and Logan and Fiennes make sometimes skillful use of television news shows to partially explain what’s going on, but the first half remains confusing. The second half is essentially a series of human clashes and that part of the story is clearly and compellingly told. The ending – the last act, essentially – is powerful.

“Coriolanus” is one of Shakespeare’s longest and least-performed plays. This movie version is a rare chance to see it, and, despite its faults, it is well worth seeing. The war scenes are very well done, and the acting is superb, once you get over the tendency to look at Fiennes as he wails to the heavens and think, “That man looks just like Voldemort.”

Opens Friday March 30

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