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‘Coriolanus’: Die, Bard, With a Vengeance!

December 3, 2011

Is it bad to admit that I enjoyed Ralph Fiennes’ modern take on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus only when the actors weren’t talking? I’ve never been a big fan of the Bard because I almost always get lost in his language—all that iambic pentameter lulls me to sleep, perchance to daydream. Occasionally, an extraordinary adapter like Kenneth Branagh (Henry V) or Ian McKellan (Richard III) makes the lines conversational enough that I can tune into them. But that’s sadly not the case with Fiennes, as fine an actor-director as he is.

Lord knows he tries to distract you from the dialogue, using urgent handheld camerawork, graphic gunplay (and knife-play!) and cable-news-style graphics to tell the tale of a fierce Roman general, who’s cast out of his home city and allies with a blood enemy (Gerard Butler). But then the actors open their mouths, and out come flowery, antiquated speeches delivered in a jarring melange of non-Italian accents (Butler’s Scottish brogue is particularly impenetrable).

The always-brilliant Brian Cox manages to be the least unintelligible as a senator sympathetic to Coriolanus’ cause, but even Vanessa Redgrave gets tongue-tied up in her climactic monologue as Fiennes’ smothering mother. And poor Jessica Chastain, as much as I love her, seems way over her pretty little head as his dutiful wife.

I might’ve enjoyed Coriolanus more if I’d waited to watch it on DVD and enabled the English-subtitles option, so I could read along instead of listening to the actors’ droning lullabies. And I’m not the only one who felt that way —I saw the film with my ex-Two Cranky Guys cohort Bret Watson, who nodded off midway through and later awoke to give it “two eyelids down!”

Then again, the packed house at the Upper West Side theater where we saw it burst into applause when the movie ended. Or maybe that was just the sound of them patting themselves on the back.

What do you think about Coriolanus—to see or not to see?

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