Give Ralph Fiennes an A for effort in trying to achieve the near-impossible in making a cogent and compelling film out of “Coriolanus,” which is arguably among Shakespeare’s worst plays. Fiennes, working from John Logan’s screenplay adaptation, makes a valiant attempt – the action is updated from ancient Rome to a contemporary European setting, complete with 24/7 television news cycles and Occupy-style protestors videotaping police brutality on their cell phones. Great chunks of the play’s cumbersome dialogue are cut away in favor of muscular high-tech battle sequences – and the level of military slambang (complete with a slow-motion crash through a large window) is so intense that the film seems more like a Channing Tatum smash-up than a Shakespearean epic.
Alas, Fiennes is ultimately betrayed by problematic source material (there is just so much cutting you can get away with) and his own off-course performance as the doomed general. Boasting a shaved head and a troubled gaze, Fiennes seems to reaching into Marlon Brando’s “Apocalypse Now” territory as a military genius gone awry. But his performance never truly clicks (those surplus close-ups of his stark gaze become a bore), and the genuine sense of tragedy that Shakespeare invested in the character is absent in this mannered performance.
At least Fiennes is trying to act, unlike the inept non-performances by Jessica Chastain as the general’s wife (a thankless role, to be certain, but one made more thankless by her dull presence) and Gerard Butler as the hirsute leader of the rival Volscians (I’m sorry, but how did this guy ever become a movie star?). Vanessa Redgrave, as the general’s leonine mother, is able to make some sense of the endeavor with her considerable star presence and extraordinary line readings that spin dramatic gold out of Shakespearean lead. But even she is tripped up by the film’s overzealous costume designer, who inexplicably shoehorned the legendary star into a quasi-military outfit, complete with a medal that resembles the Cowardly Lion’s badge of courage. Go figure!