Coriolanus (US - BD RA)
Gabe takes up arms with Ralph Fiennes for this unique Shakespearian adaptation
I’m afraid I’m entirely unfamiliar with Shakespeare's original Coriolanus, despite my English professor grandfather’s best intensions, so I approach Ralph Fiennes’ treatment of the story as a fan of creative adaptation. Fiennes, who has never directed a major motion picture before, and his screenwriter John Logan approach the story of Caius Martius Coriolanus (Fiennes), the politically exiled hero of Rome, and his tentative allying with his greatest enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), by placing it out of its original time – a popular and often successful practice for filmic Shakespearian adaptations since the days of Kurosawa’s jidaigeki variants. Fiennes and Logan don’t exactly relocate the action and era like Kurosawa, or like Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellen did for their version of Richard III, and they don’t mix many out of time anachronism, as employed by Julie Taymor for Titus. Coriolanus is simply being placed in in a non-specific, fictionalized modern timeline, meant to point to as many contemporary parallels as possible. Such actions are rarely gambles in this day and age, but the concept really works, making for one of the most ambitious and action-packed Shakespearian adaptations I’ve ever seen.
Again, I don’t know this particular play, so I can’t speak to the specifics of the adaptation, but, to my undereducated eyes and ears, Logan’s screenplay is extremely clever. Even without the efficient pacing and exciting action, this approach would likely place Coriolanus among the most general public accessible of all Shakespearian retellings. It’s easy to follow the narrative, despite its scope, and just as easy to track the ensemble of complex characters, even if their names are still impossible to recall (Fiennes himself manages to flub the names a few times on his commentary track). These unwieldy mouthfuls of dialogue are spit (sometimes literally) with clarity of intent, requiring little in the way of interpretation at the risk of the visceral moment. The Bard’s words aren’t exactly ‘natural’, but are rarely jarringly unnatural either. Within a matter of few minutes, I had little trouble negotiating the language. Fiennes and Logan are particularly clever to utilize television news and talk shows as narrative shorthand. These gracefully modernize the expositional bits and help keep Shakespeare’s story a manageable feature length.
Much of the credit falls upon the actors, of course, and Fiennes’ work with them. For all his work, Logan’s intended naturalistic tone would be lost if the actors treated the material too much like traditional, period Shakespeare. Fiennes gives himself the meatiest role. As a nearly autistic social misfit, Coriolanus is the one character here that can go off on furious, scenery-chewing rants and still fit well within the film’s natural and modern approach, making good use of the excuse to furiously chew plenty of scenery throughout. The second most aggressively melodramatic performance is allotted to Vanessa Redgrave, who plays Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia. The entire crux of the climax hinges on Redgrave’s final impassioned speech to her son and she delivers something of searing brilliance. Yet neither Fiennes or Redgrave, or even Gerard Butler (who reminds us why he remains more than another throw away action sub-star) compare to the surprisingly understated charms of Brian Cox. Cox is cast against type and his performance is delicate and honest right up to his heartbreaking final scene.
Fiennes surrounds himself with some of the best and most capable craftsmen in Hollywood and the UK, starting with neorealist cinematographer Barry Ackroyd. Often associated with Ken Loach, Ackroyd most recent work includes Paul Greengrass’ United 93 and Green Zone, and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, for which he was nominated for an Oscar, and won a BAFTA. He also helped Stuart Townsend make the leap from actor to director with Battle in Seattle. At times Fiennes leans a little too hard on Ackroyd’s specific talents. The cinéma vérité style works beautifully for the adaptation, but the constant shake of the handheld camera draws a lot of attention to itself, especially since the tight, 2.35:1 framing amplifies any movement. Still, the gritty approach sells the grim realism of the script quite well and I can’t imagine the film looking any different.
Coriolanus hits Blu-ray in full 1080p and is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen. This transfer shows off all the benefits of old-fashioned 35mm film stock. Detail and contrast levels are strong, while the format’s ‘shortcomings’ are proudly displayed, including the ebb and flow of grain, and inconsistencies in colour quality, especially on the edges of the frame. Fiennes and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd utilize a whole lot of big facial close-ups, and tend to pull the focus relatively tight on foreground elements. This practice ensures that facial and hair textures benefit the most from the HD-level details (you’ve got to love Brian Cox’s face in HD), but doesn’t do a whole lot for the bulk of the backgrounds. The use of mostly natural lighting also doesn’t do the transfer any favours in terms of background clarity, and darker scenes feature a lot more grain than the brightly lit ones. There aren’t many signs of post-production colour timing, and any hue themes are largely dependent on the production and costume design, which are as generally unstylized as everything else in the film. Colours are largely washed out, and made up of blacks, grays, greens and blues. These are left to contrast only with the occasional warmth of skin tones and rich reds and yellows. None of the colours show major signs of digital compression artefacts outside some minor blooming haloes on the lightest edges and perhaps some minor low level blocking on the warmer, out of focus background elements. I still wouldn’t mark the bulk of these as problems based on Fiennes and Ackroyd’s supposed intensions. My only real complaint concerns the quality of some of the black levels, which I wish were closer to true black than muddled gray.
This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is all about the dynamic ranges, constantly building up from whispering silence to massive walls of noise (often in the form of group chant or war noise), then cutting back to dramatic silence only to start the process again. The sound mix is quite naturalistic overall, but definitely drives into the realms of the hyper-real and rarely naturalistic as to not fill the stereo and surround channels with aggression when aggression is called for. Sometimes, the whisper of dialogue is too quiet to fully understand (despite a rather consistent LFE presence on Fiennes’ voice in particular), leading the viewer to turn up the volume, only to be attacked when battles and protests pick-up a scene or two later. The battle scenes are the track’s shining moments, and continue the dynamic contrast theme, ensuring that the audience doesn’t grow numb to the sounds of inefficient gunfire. Bullets sear throughout the channels, and the pop of shots punch the LFE, but these cracks and whizzes are precise, and all the more powerful. Ilan Eshkeri’s percussion heavy music bursts from the front channels with real impact and is effectively featured as an natural echo in the rear channels. The stereo effects of the music are quite busy, and the LFE throb is plenty heavy.
The extras begin with a commentary track featuring director/star Ralph (that’s a silent ‘l’) Fiennes solo. Fiennes mumbles through this low energy track, discussing the film’s visual themes, technical aspects (he’s noticeably excited when referring to the work put into the war sequences) and a bit of the production process. Unfortunately he spends most of his energy narrating the film for us and not nearly enough energy talking about the film outside of the on screen image. At best the track fills in a few of the differences between the original play for those of us unfamiliar with the text, but long pauses and a plodding tone keep this track from being anything less than a chore for anyone other than Fiennes’ biggest fans. The only other substantial extra is The Making of Coriolanus (5:40, SD), featuring interviews with Fiennes, actors Jessica Chastain, Brain Cox, Vanessa Redgrave and Gerard Butler, and director of research Steve Hindel, inter-cut with footage from behind the scenes and the finished film.
Ralph Fiennes makes an impressive directorial debut with Coriolanus. Few films have ever placed Shakespeare’s language into a contemporary setting with so much ease and even fewer have managed to make the material feel this relevant. I don’t imagine many viewers finding cause to rewatch Coriolanus on regular occasions, but I’ve definitely found it accessible and entertaining enough to recommend it to even those readers that might normally avoid similar experiments. The image and sound qualities of this disc are occasionally a bit rough, but this clearly fits with Fiennes’ stylistic intentions. The extras include a relatively dull commentary track with Fiennes, and a brief featurette that covers the basics of production.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 29th May 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Director/Star Commentary, The Making Of Coriolanus, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, James Nesbit
Genre: Action, Drama and War
Length: 124 minutes
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