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Ten Word or Less Review: Lend me your ears.  This movie is cool.

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is one of the later, lesser admired works of the English languages’ greatest wordsmith.  That means high school kids don’t have to read it during English 101.  It’s believed to come a few years after the great tragedies of Macbeth, King Lear and Othello.  So it shouldn’t be too hard to give the guy a break if this is seen as a less titanic work.  Masters can make one masterpiece after another but sometimes a minor but admirable work falls through the cracks.  This brings us back around to Coriolanus, which is a uniformly intriguing story but not quite the classic when compared to its more known tragedy kin.  It’s a fascinating character study that defies easy explanations and as performed and directed by Ralph Fiennes, is turned into an astute political piece with moments of high drama, bloody action and gripping visuals.

The center of this story is Caius Martius Coriolanus, a Roman general who thrives on war and combat, despises the commoners and loathes blind, false admiration.  Caius, though a famed warrior, has gained the ire of many Romans due to hoarding grain during war for use by the military.  With Caius Martius as their General, Roman soldiers defeat the Volsicans on their own ground and Caius thwarts his personal nemesis, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), in hand to hand combat, though he fails to kill him.  With war at an end the adoration shy, peasant loathing Caius is coerced into joining the senate, but as his fierce dislike of the general populous becomes abundantly clear, Caius gradually loses favor with too many and eventually finds himself banished from Rome.  He seeks out the defeated Tullus and his Volsican army begging for one of two things, kill him or appoint him their general and help him lead an assault on Rome to destroy it.  This is fine dramatic fodder indeed.

Coriolanus is classified as a tragedy but it is difficult to lend sympathy towards its lead or get an exact feel for where the tragedy lies.  The story doesn’t come equipped with great dramatic deaths of major characters who pontificate their universal insignificance as their light fades.  Coriolanus himself is a stoic and tight lipped fellow.  None the less our lead remains a great piece of dramatic ambiguity and Fiennes instills him with a fierce, unforgiving righteousness.  He is a force that will not bend to temperamental whims or fluttering opinions and thus he becomes a man with no place in society absent of direct, bloody conflict.  Lacking the sneering villainy of removed cousins such as Richard III, the character remains a guarded and enigmatic presence who commands our attention and respect, even if we generally find him a prickly sort not meant for mass appeal.  Fiennes the filmmaker recruits Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain and Vanessa Redgrave to the cause with great success.  Redgrave, as Caius’ mother, nearly walks on to the imaginary stage and struts off with the whole story.

A long time pet project of Fiennes, he and screenwriter John Logan take Shakespeare’s work and transport it to a European world of today.  Fiennes creates a world well recognizable to any regular news watcher.  Citizens revolt and march on governments, riots ensue, wars are fought, the news covers it all in graphic, minute by minute detail.  The story may be 400 years old but the themes running through it are universal.  It’s like watching the meltdown in Greece with great actors and good cinematography.  Fiennes the first time director has a keen eye for action and shot composition, building a gritty looking movie around a story he clearly feels compelled to tell with great vigor.  He works overtime to be far removed form any perception of stogginess that the Shakespeare name may conjure up in the minds of potential viewers.  While he may not quite channel the experienced finesse or action beats of Ridley Scott, or the visual audacity of Julie Taymor, Fiennes knows how to shoot a movie with a clear, distinct eye which holds our attention from beginning to end.

I know it’s Shakespeare and I know what that means to many, but Coriolanus  is enough of a visceral experience to reel in some of the more difficult viewers out there.  It’s bold and compelling and whether the Shakespeare name evokes dreaded memories of English classes so long ago should not matter.  If you start with it you will find yourself compelled to see it through.  When Fiennes stares into the camera with with his blood-streaked face you should feel well and good that you are in the middle of something worth seeing to the end.  And no, there won’t be a quiz about themes and meaning when the credits role.


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