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This contemporary version of Shakespeare’s tragedy is a gripping exploration of character, power and politics.
Set in a Rome ravaged by civil unrest and food shortages, General Martius Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes) seems poised for a political career as consul following his military victory over traditional enemies the Volscians, led by Aufidius (Gerard Butler).
However, the General’s refusal to court popularity with the people, combined with the machinations of his enemies, results in his banishment.
The embittered Coriolanus allies with the Volscians to seek revenge on Rome but is then forced to face an agonising decision due to the ties of family love.
Fiennes’ directorial vision and John Logan’s faithful adaption of Shakespeare’s text unite to create an ingenious modern context for the play. This Rome is a gritty, graffiti-daubed Everycity that could be London, New York or Belgrade (the film’s actual location).
Combat scenes resemble scenes of conflict in Afghanistan or Iraq; sword fights are reimagined as knifing brawls in bombed-out buildings.
Modern media dominate as TV commentators function as heralds, hostage assassinations are filmed and members of street crowds wave their smartphones aloft. CNN-style footage and news banners are brilliantly used to clarify action and context (for example, “Ancient Volscian border dispute flares”).
This film works brilliantly both as Shakespeare and as cinema. Visual elements cleverly illuminate the meaning of the more challenging passages of text so that Shakespeare’s language can be retained in all its fierce beauty and power.
Coriolanus features superb performances from the entire ensemble, especially the four linchpin players. Fiennes is magnificent as the complex, charismatic, flawed Coriolanus, arrogantly yet nobly spurning the requirements of political jockeying and spin.
Butler provides a compelling sense of Aufidius’ love-hate relationship with Coriolanus, while Brian Cox is quietly convincing as the General’s friend and advisor Menenius.
Vanessa Redgrave is mesmerising as Volumnia, Coriolanus’s powerful, manipulative mother.
Shakespeare’s play is more than 400 years old but in a 21st-century world of political spin, war, financial collapse and food riots, this film makes its ongoing relevance chillingly clear.