You may have noticed that Coriolanus has the word ‘anus’ in it. Ralph Fiennes has not noticed this. Not only would Ralph Fiennes not find accidental appearances of the word ‘anus’ funny even if he did notice, but, in all likelihood, Ralph Fiennes doesn’t find anything funny. He’s probably never even laughed. Indeed, it would appear that the very last thing Ralph Fiennes wants you to think is that he has a sense of humour, and just to prove it he’s made the stultifying dour-a-thon that is Coriolanus.
Amongst the lesser-known Shakespeare plays, Coriolanus tells the tale of a fatally proud general, with Fiennes’ adaptation making an entirely unambitious transposition from 5th century BC Rome, to the vague approximation of a modern-day Balkan-esque state: replete with angry mobs, gritty urban gun battles, and an aesthetic aversion to primary colours. Other than tired stereotyping, the chief threat to the populace comes from the Volscian army and their leader Aufidius, played by that notoriously urbane thespian Gerard Butler, while Fiennes himself valiantly takes on lead duties as the titular military leader: maligned by his public before winning their favour by killing some people, and then subsequently losing it again, finding himself exiled and seeking revenge.
A significant obstacle to any successful adaptation of Coriolanus is the fact that Shakespeare’s dialogue – to which the film sticks rigidly – is incredibly verbose, even by the Bard’s own prolix standards, while the characters, and particularly his supercilious lead, are profoundly unsympathetic. There are without doubt some great lines – Coriolanus’ vitriolic speech to the crowd upon his banishment is particularly special – but Fiennes ruins them with stagey, spluttering histrionics. Having apparently decided, based on previous turns in The English Patient and Harry Potter, that he is at his best when a) bald, and b) whispery, perhaps the most annoying aspect of Fiennes’ humourless and overdramatic performance is his complete lack of self-awareness – a weakness that defines the entire film. Baz Luhrmann may be an intolerable cretin (and he absolutely is), but if there’s anything redeeming about the gaudy, jarringly-edited mess that is Romeo + Juliet, it’s that it doesn’t lack a healthy sense of self-reflexive irony – something any modern translation of Shakespeare should never be without. Of Fiennes’ attempt, by comparison, the same cannot be said. Moreover, not only is Coriolanus both overwrought and hopelessly unaware of it, but the debutant director evidently believes that the only advantage that cinema has over the theatre – besides a wider audience – is that of proximity; relying stubbornly and consistently upon close-ups and medium close-ups to wring every detail out of overly theatrical performances that might belong on a stage, but certainly not on a screen.
The fact is that a less dogmatic approach to the source text could potentially have delivered a far more rewarding adaptation: with a plot that involves bloodthirsty revenge, as well as significant elements of prototypical political spin-doctoring and public protest that would find particular resonance in a contemporary context, the materials for a better film are clearly there. Instead, however, Fiennes believes ‘the play’s the thing,’ offering merely a stagey and wholly unimaginative rendition, and one that has you hoping for a climactic bloodbath that ultimately never comes. Even a weirdly Big Fat Quiz of the Year-style newsreading cameo from Jon Snow doesn’t defuse the overwhelming tedium. Quite frankly, Ralph Fiennes can shove this one up his Coriolanus.
Coriolanus is out from Friday 20 January.