|True fact: I did not realize how sexy Gerard Butler is until this film.|
If you've never heard of the play Coriolanus, you're in good company. It's not one of Shakespeare's better known works, although it has its contrarian fans (most famously T.S. Eliot). However, its themes of plebeian revolt and militaristic hubris has made it topical at various times since Shakespeare wrote it in the early 1600s, such as when Laurence Olivier played the role with echoes of Mussolini in 1959. Here in star and director Ralph Fiennes's version, citizens film scuffles with riot police on their camera phones and angry graffiti marks the cityscape.
Coriolanus is the story of what happens when a militaristic society creates the perfect Slaughterbot 3000 and gives it lots of power, but doesn't teach it to do anything else, and also it turns out that Slaughterbot 3000 gets really irritating after awhile and is honestly kind of a dick. Ralph Fiennes stars as Caius Martius, a brutally effective aristocratic Roman warrior. After successful battle earns him the title Coriolanus, his shrewd but honor-crazed mother, Volumnia (wonderfully and creepily played by Vanessa Redgrave), and ambitious politician and family friend Menenius push him into politics. Unfortunately, while Coriolanus has internalized the "Kill. Kill. Kill. Jingoism! Kill. Kill. Kill" internal monologue necessary of Slaughterbot 3000, he hasn't gotten the GOP's memo on faking populism. Instead of telling a starving populace that the reason they can't have food is that those meanie liberals taxed him and his rich buddies so much that they barely have any billions left and therefore can't pay them living wages or sell wheat at a reasonable price, he basically says, "Fuck you, gross poor people. Starve." Not surprisingly, this does not go over well with the chanting, sign-wielding, hoodie-wearing protesters, and a core resistance group eventually teams up with a pair of smarmy but more people-friendly politicians to get Coriolanus banished. This angers and confuses Slaughterbot 3000, and he storms off to arch-enemy Aufidius (Gerard Butler), the general of the impoverished neighboring country Rome has been shitting all over.
Aufidius is equally matched in fighting power to Coriolanus, and they've sworn to fight to the death a la Batman and Joker. And while Aufidius is very different from Coriolanus - Aufidius is a man of the people who is fighting for his people, not some abstract idea of patria - and has plenty of corpse-shaped reasons to hate him, he's younger and idolizes his older enemy. When Coriolanus shows up and offers his services to Aufidius, starry-eyed Aufidius gushes:
Sigh'd truer breath; but that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing! more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold.
Yikes. But this man-crush has been brewing all along, as seen during their, um, physical knife fight earlier (Can't blame Fiennes. The subtext is there, and if I were directing Gerard Butler in a fight scene with me, I'd be all, "Cut! We need even more physical contact here. Take 25!" too.). Sadly, Aufidius is about to learn just how quickly Slaughterbot 3000 can go from "wow, so useful!" to "geezus, what a douche."
So how does the modern setting/original text integration work? Pretty well, I'd say. Fiennes does a better job of working exposition into modern devices like newscasts than Baz Luhrman did in Romeo + Juliet, and works in some Skype to boot. Some scenes are a little jarring, like when Aufidius and Coriolanus bring an important battle that has involved machine guns and car bombs to a grinding halt so they can have their little knife fight. There are also unnecessary flourishes like a makeover scene with an arbitrarily weird POV. But overall the ancient story of uprisings and violence works scarily well in the 21st Century setting, and Fiennes does an artful, powerful job telling it. I don't think Fiennes has done for Coriolanus what Julie Taymor did for Titus Andronicus, but this film is certainly one of the best gifts the little-loved play has gotten in centuries.