JAMIE MATHIESON challenges his readers to fisticuffs and asserts an uncomfortable truth: Shakespeare isn’t cool.
Directed by Ralph Fiennes.
Most Shakespeare adaptations are rubbish. Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus is not rubbish. It is therefore one of the best Shakespeare adaptations ever.
Of course, it is nowhere near as good as the best Shakespeare adaptation ever, which is 10 Things I Hate About You, which I think is one of the very best films ever made, and I will gladly challenge to fisticuffs anyone who disagrees – and I will win. I know I will win because, firstly, I believe in myself – I learned that from 10 Things I Hate About You – and, secondly, because in Coriolanus Ralph Fiennes, who is nearly 50 and starting to get a wee bit podgy, is able to go toe-to-toe with King Leonidas from 300, and if that’s possible, then I could take down Lennox Lewis.
So, it’s Shakespeare, meaning it contains better dialogue, more dramatic set-pieces and zingier one-liners than anything you’ll see this year. The acting is, of course, exemplary, with the possible exception of James Nesbitt, who is out of his depth and rivals Roger Moore for the most overactive eyebrows ever seen on screen. Fiennes is terrifying and spits everywhere while straining at a leash of Oedipal mother issues and his own narcissism, and, bar the podginess, is totally convincing. Vanessa Redgrave is so good at acting she can act with her neck. (Spend most of the film watching her neck. It’s an outstanding neck.) The stand-out, for me, is Jessica Chastain, and her mostly wordless performance is the most skilful bit of Fiennes’ almost flawless direction.
Ralph Fiennes – good in a fight?
Almost? Yes. Only three stars? Yes. School almost ruined Shakespeare for me. Not because I found it boring, or didn’t like all the ‘thous’ and ‘thees’, but because they couldn’t stop trying to make Shakespeare cool. Shakespeare’s not cool. He’s a genius. And that genius is dissipated by presenting him in a self-consciously GCSE bitesize, down-with-the-kids manner. I can cope with the Call of Duty street fighting. But my patience is stretched when the Roman forum becomes Shepherd’s Bush Market, with Fiennes constantly forgetting that he’s not on stage anymore and that ‘the people’ can be represented by more than the same three or four actors. And it passes breaking point when the narrative is partly told through news reports from a fictional TV station, presented by Jon Snow. The whole audience laughed out loud, as Fiennes threw away the conviction of his performance on gimmick after anachronistic gimmick. I half expected to be given a worksheet at the end.
That said, it’s still pretty darn good. Most Shakespeare adaptations are so bad just because they try to make him better – you can’t. He’s flawless already. And it’s a timely examination of the vulnerabilities of democracy. Being popular isn’t everything. But I learned that from another film. It was called 10 Things I Hate About You, and it’s awesome. And I’ll go for fisticuffs with anyone who disagrees.