Way back during awards season I received a copy of “Coriolanus.” I didn’t know anything about it but it looked interesting with a picture of bald, bloody Ralph Fiennes facing off against a hairy, bloody Gerard Butler. I hadn’t noticed any awards buzz so I put it at the bottom of the stack.
A few days later Ralph was on one of the talk shows I watch — I think it was “The Daily Show” — and he and the host start talking Shakespeare. Wait. Is this a Shakespeare adaptation? I consult with my in-house expert.
“Have you ever heard of ‘Coriolanus?'”
“Yes. It’s a Shakespeare play.”
“Why haven’t you ever subjected me to it?”
“I’ve never seen it performed anywhere. It’s not one of his more famous works.”
“What’s it about.”
“I don’t know. I haven’t read it.”
“You haven’t read it? You have a copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare that’s been with you longer than I have. Hold up — you have two copies. Your mother gave you a copy a couple years ago that’s bigger than our coffee table. And you’re telling me you haven’t read it?”
“Have you read everything Stan Lee ever wrote?”
“I’ve read everything he wrote that’s in this house.”
“Well, I’m sorry but I haven’t read ‘Coriolanus.'”
“There’s a movie version. Want to watch it?”
And so it was that The Wife and I sat down to watch “Coriolanus,” directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes stars as Roman general Caius Martius Coriolanus. Caius is a no-nonsense, kick-ass soldier who has no tolerance for politicians or the common people. As a result, he’s not well-loved by anyone but his wife (Jessica Chastain), his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), his young son (Harry Fenn) and one Roman senator (Brian Cox).
The setting is modern Rome (the kind of change that often annoys The Wife, but not in this case) where the people are rioting over lack of food. Into the fray walks Caius and immediately the rioters back down. He spouts some Shakespearean dialogue and walks away, disgusted that he even had to leave the battlefield to deal with his people.
“This guy is awesome. Are you sure this is Shakespeare?”
There’s some boring stuff involving his family and then it’s off to war-torn Volsci, where the Romans have been engaged in fierce fighting. The Roman soldiers are floundering until Caius walks through the smoke, bald head smeared in blood, spouts inspiring Shakespearean dialogue, and leads his men back into battle.
In an abandoned building, Caius comes face to face with his mortal enemy, Volsci leader Tullus Aufidius (Butler). The two men put down their guns, pick up their blades and go at each other in a brutal knife fight that ends with them smashing through a window and falling a few feet to the hard concrete.
“This is the most incredible Shakespeare ever! I can’t believe this is Shakespeare. Why has this been kept a secret? Why isn’t Shakespeare St. Louis performing this every year?”
“Do you talk this much in a theater?”
Caius returns home where his supporters want to promote him to the role of Consul. But a couple of conniving, sleazy politicians work up the public so that instead of a promotion Caius ends up banished from Rome. He responds by walking to Volsci and joining forces with Tullus to bring down his ungrateful homeland.
“Corolianus” is the first Shakespeare play I can say I truly enjoyed without saying it just to appease my wife (Well, OK, I have enjoyed some Shakespeare through the years, but none with as many knife fights). The story was easy to follow, there weren’t too many characters to keep straight, the dialogue wasn’t too off-putting. I’m still not 100 percent sure it was Shakespeare.
The first-rate cast does fine work. In fact — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — if you can only watch one Ralph Fiennes movie this weekend, go with the one where he’s playing a Roman general and not the one where he’s the King of the Greek Gods.
Because frankly, Coriolanus could kick Zeus’ butt.