Coriolanus Review

Film Still
  • Coriolanus film still


Ralph Fiennes fails to inject one of the Bard’s most talky texts with any cinematic impetus.

We need to talk about Shakespeare. Even though there’s no polite way of saying it. No way you can say it without planting your flag alongside the anti-intellectual forces of darkness. But then again, it has to be said: there’s no place for William Shakespeare in cinema.

Not like this, anyhow. Not this dull drone of a dead language. Shakespeare may have been a genius. 'Coriolanus' may be a masterpiece. But up there on screen, it’s a relic of a forgotten era, stripped of meaning, power and purpose.

Why do we pretend that Shakespeare, and only Shakespeare, is inviolable? Why do we tinker with the context – as Ralph Fiennes does here, fruitlessly searching for contemporary relevance and finding only clichés –when the problem goes so much deeper? Blank verse. Blank faces.

And so Coriolanus unfolds in agonising monologues as the savagely patrician General wins and loses the support of the citizenry in a time of crisis, turns traitor and is in turn betrayed for his sins. It is a meditation on the nature of power; the relationship between ruler and ruled; the fickleness of the mob. It is dressed in the drab greys of military life and fascist insignia, and it is inhabited by our most pre-eminent and preening thesps who are left to indulge themselves under Fiennes’ awkward eye.

The problem is that Fiennes has failed to inject one of the Bard’s most talky texts with any cinematic impetus. On stage, all that posturing, that capital-A acting – that fucking monologuing – may well be spellbindingly powerful. But cinema is, well, many things but it’s not a stage – it doesn’t reward impassivity and grandstanding. And it especially doesn’t reward it in what is, essentially, a foreign language.

Cinema is an adaptive medium, yes, but it’s also a medium that deals in adaptations. Not transliterations. In treating Shakespeare not just as timeless but as changeless, we don’t respect his work – we mummify it.

View 30 comments

Peter Haidu

3 years ago
MB on Coriolanus is perhaps the most idiotic thing imaginable. It is deaf dumb and blind review of a movie that is certainly problematic, but its language is perfectly understandable, and its narrative drive unquestionable.

My review of MB: not worth bothering with.

Tej Sapru

3 years ago
Well I am not a Shakespeare expert, and I found the language very easy to understand.
My guess is that this happened because the acting was fantastic, but thats just a guess, I am not an expert.
I also found that the movie tore along, never letting up for a minute. I cannot recall a single moment when the "fucking monologuing" disrupted the flow, or seemed to go on for too long.
So I guess what I am trying to say is, thank god I didn't listen to you!

Colin Seedhouse

3 years ago
So Matt you want Shakespeare to use real English. You presumably mean that Hamlet should be "awesome" and Much Ado About Nothing will be a modern rom com where you will LOL. Idiot.


3 years ago
Shakespeare IS real English. Our current version has evolved from it and plenty of people can understand it without the need for translation.


3 years ago
Having read and studied all of the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare...I can honestly say, "You're right, Matt!" It IS a foreign language and is almost impossible to understand in performance without great acting, gesturing and preparation (reading the play and all of the footnotes in an Arden-type publication).
Since most viewers will not do this due to constraints of time, and motivation, a good alternative would be to subtitle all Shakespearian movies as we do do other foreign-language films and operas. The translations would be consulted by the interested when they are baffled either at the theatre or later while watching the dvd at home.

Peter Stoffe

3 years ago
Well done Matt, you've just posted your intellectual inadequacy for all to see. Perhaps we should add some drum and bass into Beethoven's Fifth? Maybe a coat of emulsion to tone down those oh-so-garish colors in Van Gogh's Sunflowers?

So this version of Coriolanus was "stripped of meaning, power and purpose?" Well, only if you are very, very dim. Tell you what - have a word with the powers that be and stick to reviewing Pixar, eh?


3 years ago
Comments proving to it to be a "Marmite" film by the look of it.
I'm no huge fan of The Bard, but this IS an amazing set of performances, DID keep me engrossed fully for its duration and I WILL see it again, if for nothing other than to see Fiennes brilliantly passionate, spitting turn and it's imaginative originality in its geographical conceit.
In this case, there's no comment on he review, just a comment from me that I thought it was superb and well worth a night in its company if you want to see something truly different.


3 years ago
Call of Duty: Modern Shakespeare, coming soon. The kids bloody love Shakespeare.


3 years ago
I didn't care much for Coriolanus either, but had no problem with the language whatsoever. I even quite like the play. But the handheld cinematography was a wilfully over-done barrier to any connection with the drama for me. (It doesn't make me nauseous, and I usually don't mind it, but here it felt utterly forced. Heck, even Restrepo and Armadillo were shot – under conditions of actual warfare – with a steadier hand.) It was a real disappointment coming from the same chap responsible for The Hurt Locker and Green Zone.

And then there's the shouting. Shouty, shout, shout. It wore thin for me after a scant couple of minutes.

Fiennes' dark-shark-eyed performance was entirely unremarkable. Vanessa Redgrave and Jessica Chastain and the hawk and the dove behind him were much more engaging, especially Redgrave.

I thought the Balkan setting was aesthetically well chosen, but the resonances were surface-deep. Fiennes had nothing to actually say about the internecine wars of the 1990s. Nor – as Peter Bradshaw thought – the Arab Spring, beyond: hungry, unhappy people sometimes call for their leaders to be deposed. Yes, and? *shrug* That's just not enough.

Technically it seemed wanting, too: in many, many scenes there was so much digital noise in the image that it became distracting.

There are some nicely played moments in the rubble, though: Brian Cox shaken and hopeless in the car; any of the scenes in which Jessica Chastain finds herself worried/pensive and alone.


3 years ago
Wow. Worst review ever. You couldn't possibly make yourself sound any more dumb or ignorant if you tried.


3 years ago
Get a life people. A review isn't meant to be out-and-out-facts filled with crowd-pleasingness. If you disagree with it, go and write a review of your own. This is Matt's opinion of it and he isn't going to lie just to satisfy all the nerds out there who hide behind the safety of their computer screen, who think they're God's gift to film criticism.


3 years ago
While I think that this review overdoes it with the statement "there’s no place for William Shakespeare in cinema" - one look at various other brilliant adaptations will refute this - I must admit I was remarkably underwhelmed by Coriolanus. Matt is right that "Fiennes fruitlessly search[es] for contemporary relevance and finds only clichés" - the modern context was jarringly off-key, just a grey-stained diluted dystopia, and the inclusion of Jon Snow was laughable. That's before you consider the fact that 40 minutes of the film is Ralph staring angrily just the side of the camera as though terminally constipated.


3 years ago
I was astounded to read this review - LWL normally has rigorous reviews, whether you agree with them or not. This just adds up to "Shakespeare is too hard to understand on screen". Poor, poor review - is the reviewer a regular?


3 years ago
"There’s no place for William Shakespeare in cinema."

So true. Despite the hundreds of Shakespearean film adaptations made, many of which are excellent. Just offhand:

Branagh's (or Gibson's) Hamlet
Merchant of Venice with Pacino
Richard III with McKellen
Branagh's Henry V

Sorry Matt, you're objectively 100% wrong, not to mention pretty dumb-sounding.

Barney Tabasco

3 years ago
Just finished watching Coriolanus and I must say Matt, you have truly disappointed me with this review. LWL is a gem of a publication but this 'review' has no place in it. You seem to have missed the point of this film on every single level. Everything you fail to grasp is the very thing that makes this piece so powerful and relevant. I can even see this being one of the movies of the year. Acting and direction are absolutely top notch and if anything, it's worth celebrating simply by finally showing Gerard Butler to be a decent actor!


3 years ago
The main problem with Mr. Bochenski’s review is that it is too kind. This Fiennes VANITY project is dead on arrival.

However, his analysis is a bit overreaching. It is not that the Shakespearean idiom is unusable in motion pictures; it is that it doesn't work in this particular film. I have to agree with Steve, the films he mentions are top calibre films. I was hoping this effort would be more like the very theatrical handling of the lesser known, Titus (Andronicus) directed by Julie Taymor, released in 1999. It may have been "arty" to purists, but it is highly watchable and entertaining..

Here, the language couldn’t be more disconnected from the hand cam, in-your-face (literally) hokum that is crudely appended to it with no more surgical talent than Dr. Frankenstein working on his monster. Shakespearean Tragedy, indeed!

David Llewellyn

3 years ago
That's an insult to Pixar movies.

Matt Bochenski

3 years ago
Hello everyone

Thanks for reading the review! The idea was to start a sensible discussion about the place of Shakespeare in modern cinema. Now, obviously, I didn’t actually start a sensible discussion because I mixed it with hyperbole and exaggeration (the demands of the genre…), but it might be worth belatedly responding to some of the pissed off people above.

The bit that everyone seems to have missed is that after I said there’s no place for Shakespeare in modern cinema I said NOT LIKE THIS.

Here’s the thing: Shakespeare lived, what, 400 years ago? Yes he wrote in English, but the English of four centuries ago is so distant from the language that we speak today it is, by any reasonable measure, a foreign tongue. Don’t believe me? Why do you have to learn Shakespeare in school – like French? Because comprehension doesn’t come naturally to us today.

And yet because of cultural imperialism or maybe intellectual self-flagellation or perhaps just a feeling that Shakespeare is good medicine, we persist – against all reason – in treating Shakespeare as if he’s a natural part of our contemporary cultural landscape.

In one sense, I don’t have a problem with that: his stories are universal, timeless and relevant. But the language – the mechanism through which he tells these stories – isn’t. And I don’t see the point of pretending otherwise.

And filmmakers know this. They know they have to do… something with Shakespeare. That’s why they update all the contextual stuff to try and pull the wool over our eyes. But that’s putting the cart before the horse. Context isn’t the problem: comprehension is. Literally following what’s happening is the issue. But because of the apparently binding edict that you can fuck with every part of Shakespeare except the language, the real issue is never addressed. The result is stuff like Coriolanus, in which people run around a Baltic landscape addressing each other like Roman senators, which is FUCKING STUPID. As in, palpably absurd.

But you can see by the responses above that people won’t have it. The basic truth that Shakespeare is a foreign language is greeted by, ‘Yeah well, I can understand it!’ Bully for you. Some people can understand French. Mostly they’ll have learned it at school (or, you know, they’re French). Well, I didn’t. And I can’t understand it. And I’m not remotely ashamed of that fact. Shakespeare is the same – there’s absolutely no reason why I should be able to understand a 400-year-old English dialect, and every reason why filmmakers should make it easier for me if they want me to understand what they see in it.

I’m not criticising Shakespeare’s plays. But that’s another thing – he’s a playwright, not a screenwriter. The idea that you can just take his text and drop it into a film is, again, ridiculous. We wouldn’t do it for anyone else; why make an exception here. Like I said in the review, cinema is a medium of adaptation, not transliteration.

(Although, ironically, probably the best cinematic Shakespeare experiences are the ones that go full tilt and really wallow in the full period details – like Henry V. At least neither Olivier or Branagh pretended they were doing anything other than filming a historical play.)

I don’t see anything too controversial about this. It’s just Shakespeare is the Great Untouchable – beloved by our all our most earnest but slightly tedious cinematic talents. It’s because They Know Better. Because Shakespeare is Culturally Significant and therefore Good For Us and must be Experienced Properly.

Well, not by me. In a choice between Coriolanus and 10 Things I Hate About You, I know which side my cultural bread is buttered.


3 years ago
I didnt think Coriolanus was up to much either. Performances sound but not only was the cinematography quite jarring, this was clearly a bit of a Ralph Fiennes vanity project. I think he will do well as a director but I feel this may have been a far to difficult place to start.


3 years ago
The surprising thing is that Ralph Fiennes said he actually did quite a LOT to the text because of all the reasons you mention and because Coriolanus is inherently one of Shakespeare's less "friendly" plays. Obviously he didn't do enough ...


3 years ago
"I’m not criticising Shakespeare’s plays. But that’s another thing – he’s a playwright, not a screenwriter"

Holy shit! I hope no one's told him yet...


3 years ago
I reviewed it unfavourably as well! Who wants some!


3 years ago
I went to a talk held by Little White Lies at a film festival in Newcastle. Matt insisted that LWLies pride themselves on the non-subjectivity of their criticism, getting into a debate with someone who wouldn't let the issue drop.

This is a really subjective review!

But well argued.

Matt Bochenski

3 years ago
I remember that conversation. I wasn't claiming that LWLies reviews were objective - just the opposite. That dude was talking about using the first-person. He reckoned that because we only write in the third-person, we were suggesting that our reviews were objective. I said that wasn't the case at all - because subjectivity is inherent to any criticism, it basically goes without saying. So you can write in the third-person and still, anyone reading the review automatically knows it's subjective as a kind of axiomatic point of faith. He vehemently (some might say 'long-windedly') disagreed. But no way do I think our reviews our objective.

I do, however, think my opinion is 'right', but that's just because I have a God complex. I have an awesome badge that says 'Everybody is entitled to my opinion...' You pretty much have to be that conceited to want to start your own film mag.


3 years ago
Aah I remember now, sorry it was a while ago - my mistake. Great magazine.

Aaron Y

3 years ago
That was extraordinarily unfunny.

Dean Anast

3 years ago
I guess Matt would prefer Pop Goes The Weasel to the Adagio from Mahler's Fifth Symphony

Joey T

3 years ago
How does that even work as an analogy?

Matt's argument, in perhaps its simplest form, was that the language being used was outdated and thus difficult to follow or engage with. And so surely he would prefer Mahler's Fifth, which has NO WORDS, to Pop Goes The Weasel, which includes old, potentially difficult to understand words, such as 'tuppenny'...

Jai Ho

3 years ago
The negative replies here (although surely from a dedicated subset and not representative of all moviegoers) show that you can't make the case against use of Shakespearean English in the movies today without a lot of backlash.

I think there is a sound case for this film and others based on Shakespear, but not all, being better done in fully modern day English. Use of current language can be more effective at times (and more easily understood by some no doubt) so I agree with Matt's argument. Of course who your audience is most important in determining that and you can't please everyone.


3 years ago
Too much information got lost by interpreting the dialogue.
His mother's plea kind of left me wondering.
As to the "you can't alter his written words" bollocks: The movie contains tanks and bazookas. Hows that for an alteration of trebuchets and swords?

I understand that the story is timeless but if you place it in a modern world you might as well use or provide the current use of the english language.

I found the movie interesting but sadly not really enjoyable.

Hell here in Belgium we even place subtitles underneath the Dutch and people with dialects.
I understand every single word that comes out of there mouths but not everybody does.

I'd welcome future Shakespeare plays to the screen but Shakespeare puzzles? No thank you.

ps: fuck objectivity
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