Thursday, January 19, 2012
In Theaters: "Coriolanus"
Still, it’s not merely an actor’s showcase; there are surely scores of experienced directors who’d have helmed the film for him. Finnes proves a robust and energetic filmmaker, and his staging (of, admittedly, one of the Bard’s lesser-known works) is ingenious. To start, he’s done in it in modern dress, but it’s not an arbitrary, cosmetic move—though it does have the kick of a particularly ingenious adaptation (similar to Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet or Almereyda’s Hamlet, whose transposition of the “get thee to a nunnery speech” into an answering machine message still gives me a grin). No, this is an interpretation that couldn’t feel more timely and appropriate, with (perhaps intentional, perhaps accidental) allusions to the Tea Party, Congressional dysfunction, and the Occupy movement that land without the clumsiness that so often batters political cinema.
Those overtones noted, Finnes isn’t creating a polemic here; he and screenwriter John Logan (the increasingly-busy scribe behind Rango, Hugo, and the next Bond movie) reinvent Shakespeare’s historical tragedy as a tough, muscular action movie, set in a war-torn Rome that looks more like 2005 Baghdad. The story is told (in the early stretches, anyway) primarily in short, crisp scenes, boiling down Shakespeare’s narrative into expositionary bursts and lean action beats. It’s a strategy that works, somewhat surprisingly—the creator of the contemporary retelling is often stuck with graceless transitions and awkwardly wordless scenes, but we’re not used to a lot of talking in a gruesome knife fight, or in Finnes’s scene of hand-to-hand combat with Gerald Butler. It may not have all that much to do with Shakespeare, but as an audience, we’re not terribly bothered.
The rather brilliant turn of the second half—in which exiled and disgraced Coriolanus (Finnes) offers himself up as a soldier to his sworn enemy (Butler)—is distinctively modern as well, a bit of classic revenge storytelling that works like a charm. The only trouble (and the film’s only genuine flaw) is that there is a rhythmic shift in that second hour as well; the scenes run much longer than in the first, which puts a drag on the pacing and makes the film feel a bit longer than it is. This is not to suggest that it all had to run at the rat-tat-tat pace of those introductory scenes—merely that some kind of a middle ground might have been advisable.
But even when the energy flags, Finnes and his cast impress. Butler’s characterization is less complicated, but blunt and effective—his is a performance of brute force and raw emotion, and it works. Brian Cox is magnificent (of course), playing this Shakespearean dialogue like a concert pianist. And then there is Vanessa Redgrave, who is astonishingly good in a multi-layered turn: ruthlessly pragmatic in one scene, tough as nails in the next, culminating in a face-off with her son in which she serves up a potent elixir of righteous indignation and maternal guilt. Hers is a stop-the-presses performance, and one of many wise decisions that Finnes made in assembling a first-rate directorial debut.
"Coriolanus" opens tomorrow in limited release.