Film Review: Coriolanus

Written by Doug Strassler on . Posted in Film.

“There are only three great Shakespeare movies,” Harvey Weinstein said last night at the Paris Theater. “Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, and Coriolanus.” How convenient, then, that Weinstein was introducing the U.S. premiere of Coriolanus, the directorial debut of actor Ralph Fiennes.

Weinstein may have been his typically hyperbolic self, but he was not inaccurate. Fiennes’ adaptation of the lesser-known but enduring Shakespearean tragedy, adapted by John Logan, is excellently crafted. Set in the contemporary war-torn city of Rome (a generic one, not the Italian one), Fiennes is sensational as General Caius Martius, a soldier who rises to fame and political power after defeating the army of Volscian soldier Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler, believable here but not given as much of the Bard’s iambic pentameter to master as the rest of Fiennes’ terrific ensemble). When the people of Rome fail to cotton to their new hero, foe becomes friend, with Aufidius and Martius (now crowned “Coriolanus” after the Volscian city he has conquered) establishing a toxic connection of mutual understanding.

There’s much to be said here about war, politics, the media, betrayal, ambition and hubris. Fiennes has no trouble transferring the universal Coriolanus to a modern setting while keeping Shakespeare’s gorgeous language intact, with only the occasional peppering of a more modern patois. (A note to the squeamish: There will be blood.) Jessica Chastain, Brian Cox and James Nesbitt all have a terrific grip on the material. In a perfect world, Chastain, seemingly assured a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination next week for The Help, would face off against this movie’s titanic Vanessa Redgrave, in a career high as Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia. There hasn’t been a mother this terrifying since Angela Lansbury planted a kiss on Laurence Harvey 49 years ago in The Manchurian Candidate, but Redgrave’s performance is truly notable for its marked restraint.

James Earl Jones, Redgrave’s co-lead in the Broadway revival of Driving Miss Daisy last season, attended the premiere, while Liam Neeson, Redgrave’s son-in-law (not to mention Oskar Schindler to Fiennes’ Nazi Amon Goeth) attended the after-party at the Royalton Hotel, co-sponsored by Dewar’s, where among talk about Oscar predictions and Sundance entries, a humble Chastain could be heard effusing about the honor of working alongside Redgrave.

Chastain, who had attended Sunday’s Golden Globes in Los Angeles, was probably not the only party guest feeling a hint of jet lag: the Bruno Mars-ian Thomas Langmann, now a Globe-winner for producingThe Artist, could also be spotted. Other stars in attendance included The Big C’s John Benjamin Hickey and Laura Linney (herself an erstwhile co-star of Neeson’s), Paul Haggis, Gina Gershon, Patti Smith, Fisher Stevens, Bob Balaban, Judd Hirsch, and self-proclaimed BFFs Dan Abrams and David Zincenko, editor of Men’s Health.

One thing you can be sure everyone agreed upon: This movie is bloody good.

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