Go Big or Go Home, by Scott Nye
One of the great struggles of the modern (or post-modern if you like) era has been the desire to make Shakespeare palatable to the masses. For those willing to take the plunge, his stories and characterizations are so rich, so engaging, and so beautifully written that all the praise given to him seems only natural. To those who have yet to do so, that praise seems overwrought, undeserved, and very bandwagon-y. I know, because I’ve been on both sides of the divide, and having emerged taking the former stance, I am thrilled to get any adaptation of Shakespeare that employs the kind of talent director/star Ralph Fiennes has here, and who he has directed to some truly stunning performances in Coriolanus.
I am less delighted by his insistence on plopping Shakespeare’s story in the modern era. Having endured these affairs nearly quarterly in college, I find rare the translation of Shakespeare’s text into a modern setting that works on any level. I get what Fiennes is after here – Shakespeare’s commentary on the political process (in which one side sort of despises the public, and the other is just out to beat the competition at any cost) is as timely now as it was then – but any thinking person could have drawn that conclusion from a straight adaptation of the piece. It’s a shortsighted grasp for immediacy in a timeless story.
But what Fiennes loses in overall coalescence, he gains in pure dramatization. When you have a cast as good as he, Jessica Chastain, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Gerard Butler, and James Nesbitt, you’d do well to play them all the way, and does Fiennes ever. Shakespeare has long provided actors a natural avenue to go big and feel good about it, and while at this point it doesn’t prove to be the most original choice, damn if it’s not still the most dynamic. Fiennes especially proves a natural Shakespeare lead, what with his voice constantly at a higher volume and that crazy look his eyes seem to have on default; Jessica Chastain provides perfect ballast as the ever-supportive wife (those who tired of her portrait of grace and compassion in The Tree of Life will find little relief here; those fine with great acting of any flavor will not).
Vanessa Redgrave assumes the more forceful female role here, as Coriolanus’ mother, the one constantly urging him further and further until his (or her) ambition has broken him, and she must do what needs be done on her own. Redgrave plays the unassuming mother so well that you’d never expect what she is truly capable of, how that depth of understanding of her son can be wielded in many directions.
As an ensemble, Fiennes and company know their text inside and out, a skill easy enough to fake with most pieces, but the lack of which becomes deadly when approaching Shakespeare. I am not too proud to deny I’ve had trouble following such adaptations in the past, and I don’t think I’ve become so much more sophisticated that this could not have similarly befuddled me, but the ensemble allowed no such misunderstandings. Fiennes doesn’t exactly come out of the gate a full-fledged auteur, but he can direct the hell out of a cast.
His cinema, on the other hand, has a long way to go. Shot by your chaos cinema friend and mine, Barry Ackroyd, it inevitably feels a little sub-Greengrass/Bigelow (emphasis on the Bigelow). On one level, it’s easy to say, well, the movie has guns in it so of course it’s shot that so-gritty-you-guys way, but on the other, this is much more about political machinations, so maybe something in the way of a steady eye might’ve been more effective. As it is, the action scenes do feel a trifle chaotic, and the dialogue, so cutting as delivered, loses its edge somewhat the more the camera drifts around the cast.
Whatever the reasoning, Fiennes’s eager-beaver need to really make a statement with his material and his lack of confidence as a visual stylist are certainly the two major hindrances to the work, but it’s still a hell of a watch. For those who take elemental pleasure from hearing Shakespeare’s beautiful verse delivered this well, your evening will be well spent, and as a piece of drama, Coriolanus still packs a punch.