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April 28, 2012 | 11:27 a.m. CST
Coriolanus is a difficult character to like. A Roman general who despises the common people and holds the upper class in similar regard, he cares little for tradition or custom. He exhibits no affection for his wife, criticizing her emotional response to his safe return from war. The only thing he does love is hating his enemy, and even to that solitary mistress he’s unfaithful.
The film and the character take a special kind of person to fully appreciate. For many moviegoers, there will be little to enjoy.
Based on one of Shakespeare’s later and least popular plays, Coriolanus depicts the rise and fall of Caius Martius, a Roman general, who is later given the name Coriolanus. The film, with the exception of being set in a modern, war-torn version of Rome, remains loyal to the original, which in this case is not necessarily a good thing. It’s a story without a protagonist; no major character ever earns or wants to earn the audience’s admiration.
Martius, played by Ralph Fiennes, is a complex blend of pride, honor, duty and wrath. But he’s also one-dimensional, and his depiction in the film does little to add depth to the character. Fiennes, who also directs the film, has played evil before — a Nazi, Voldemort — and oozes a certain quality that just begs to be loathed, making him perfect for those roles. As a leading tragic figure, however, it’s less than ideal.
But Shakespeare’s version of Martius isn’t intended to be loved. Fiennes already took liberties with time and place. A few slight tweaks to modernize the story would have been nice, as well. It wouldn’t require a complete rewrite of Shakespeare’s words, just something, anything, to help the audience believe Martius is human.
Fiennes’ directorial choices could have been better, as well. His over-reliance on a shaky camera produces an unintentionally unsettling feeling, and with a runtime over two hours, the film also has a tendency to stall.
The film is not without its positives. It’s a visceral, visually appealing experience that captures the desolateness of a ravaged European city, and the cast surrounding Fiennes excels, most notably Gerard Butler and Vanessa Redgrave.
It’s an ambitious undertaking. Modernizing a little-known Shakespearean play while remaining loyal to the original takes courage, skill and an uncommon level of indifference to the desires of commoners; the same traits possessed by Martius in tragic excess. Unfortunately, Coriolanus is lacking in all three.