How do you review a movie that is of top notch production values, features a handful of amazing performances, tells a gripping story and gets nearly everything right, but you just can’t recommend? I wish someone would tell me because Coriolanus is one of those movies. There’s so much good, so many things to admire and rave about, but there is one giant problem with the film and it pervades its entirety. Watching the movie is like eating a gourmet meal where the main course is only slightly overcooked. It shouldn’t ruin the whole thing, but it kind of does. I want to do nothing more than tell you to watch Coriolanus, but my dismay at one of the most ill-advised decisions I’ve seen in a film in quite a long time is keeping me from doing it.
The film is based on the William Shakespeare play from the early 17th century and it stars Ralph Fiennes as Roman general Caius Martius Coriolanus who, after years of duty to his country, is banished and decides to take revenge on Rome with a man who used to be his enemy, Volscian army general, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). It’s a tried and true story, one that is wrought with tension, suspense, drama and meaning that can be tied to modern times in our treatment of soldiers during and after wartime. There is nothing inherently wrong with this story, but the way it’s adapted is a pity.
What Coriolanus does is take an old play that was written over 400 years ago and modernizes it, setting it in the present day and in the current political and societal climates. However, it retains the old Shakespearean dialogue from the early 1600’s and, plain and simple, it doesn’t work. It’s beyond silly to watch a group of soldiers run through the streets with their AKs shooting each other up followed by those same soldiers speaking archaic rhetoric that doesn’t fit the modern time period. Although this decision does allow for some intense monologues, most notably from the terrific Fiennes, these moments only work by themselves and not when analyzed within the overall picture.
Coriolanus is an odd mash-up of two different time periods that don’t work well together and it drags the entire film down because it’s not just one tiny aspect of its production. It’s a major narrative decision, a persistent problem that runs throughout its entire 2 hour length. If writer John Logan wanted to retain that old language, he should have set the film in the appropriate time period. Nobody these days talks like this, about how “thou art lost” and how someone doesn’t hate you, but instead hates “thee.” It’s an artistic decision that is nothing more than laughable.
It’s such a shame because in his directorial debut, Fiennes crafts a beautifully shot film with a handful of outstanding performances that could have made for a powerful experience. He has a distinct visual eye and shoots each scene appropriately within the context of where the story is at that point and he, perhaps because this is an obvious passion project for him, gives what may be his single greatest performance. He’s a sight to behold in this film and the fact that he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar this year is a crying shame.
It’s rare that one bad decision can sour an otherwise solid production, but there you have it. It’s far too hard to blend two different time periods together, your eyes showing you one thing while your ears tell you another, which is most notable in a scene where political pundits argue on the television. Their debate comes off more like gossip between guests at a costume party in 1607 than actual political discourse. Moments like that are indicative of the entire film. Even when you’re watching scenes with breathtaking performances (of which there are many), you can never fully shake how ridiculous the whole affair is. Set this in 17th century Rome and you may be onto something, but as is, Coriolanus is an anomaly: a movie that gets 95% of its content correct and still fails.
Coriolanus receives 2/5