LFF Review: Coriolanus: No Great Shakes

CORIOLANUS (15): At The London Film Festival Sunday 16th October and Monday 17th October. On General Release Friday 20th January.

The number of Shakespeare’s works that have been adapted for modern consumption is mind-boggling.  Coriolanus is one of the Bard’s lesser known plays, a tragedy about power and ego in which a celebrated war hero (Ralph Fiennes) turned politician is exiled for his failure to court the public opinion, largely aided by the machinations of two rivals Sicinius (James Nesbitt) and Brutus (Paul Jesson).

Stripped of his position, Coriolanus stumbles into enemy territory and encounters his nemesis Aufidius (Gerard Butler) who takes pity on him.  The two join forces and raise an army with which Coriolanus attempts to have his revenge and conquer Rome.

It’s an impressively staged production.  It’s supposedly set in Rome but looks more like the blasted wasteland of Full Metal Jacket – strewn debris and gutted buildings.  The modern setting coupled with Shakespearian dialogue is initially a bit jarring but soon settles into an even pace: the crowd captures protests with smart phones; grenade launchers reduce towns to smoking rubble; rolling news channels constantly report the latest updates.

With such a wealth of British talent in the cast, it’s also expectedly well acted particularly by Fiennes himself who glares at people so ferociously he often looks like he might set them alight (although the  bald look means that there is an inevitable whiff of Voldemort about him which is a difficult image to shift).

Even better is Brian Cox as the mediating diplomat Menenius but it’s Vanessa Redgrave who steals the show. She’s nothing short of magnificent as Coriolanus’s proud unbending mother Volumina, managing to be both commandingly regal and movingly vulnerable at the same time.  Gerard Butler also does well as a gruff unlikely ally but it’s a shame that Jessica Chastain, a superb actress, is wasted, as she’s given very few lines as Corialanus’s wife Virgiliia.

Unfortunately, there are a few blips along the way.  There’s a reason that Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays and that’s because it’s actually quite dull.  It lacks the dramatic punch that it needs to sustain its weighty running time of 127 minutes and by the second half, you’ll be glancing regularly at your watch.

There are also some scenes which don’t transcribe well to the modern setting – characters stand around making speeches when they could be acting – what works on stage seems almost ridiculous when framed in a real world context.  Worst of all is the use of Jon Snow as one of the news anchors which is supposed to evoke a note of authenticity to the broadcasts but is actually unintentionally hilarious and does exactly the opposite.

Those who are fans of the play will find Coriolanus an intriguing and different staging which features some absolutely stunning acting from Redgrave.  Regular cinema goers might find it more of a hard slog.