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The 55th BFI London Film Festival starts today with the gala screening of Fernando Meirelles’ 360. And what better way to celebrate than to take a look at the only film I’ve managed to see in advance of the festival: Coriolanus.

Coriolanus sees Ralph Fiennes both act and direct in this Roman-based Shakespeare play updated to a modern day setting. It’s a strong directorial debut, with Fiennes showing flair in the action sequences as well as handling the Shakespearean dialogue – and actors – extremely well. Fiennes takes the titular role of a power hungry general expelled from his country who teams up with his fiercest rival, played by Gerard Butler, for a rampage of revenge. They are joined by some top class acting talent in the form of Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain and James Nesbitt, but it’s actually Butler who impresses the most, with a surprisingly charismatic performance.

The strength of the film is in the relationship and chemistry between Fiennes and Butler’s relationship. Their rivalry and subsequent union feels believable and well established. The modern military setting fits well here, updating them from warring Romans to badass military guys.

At other times though the modern day setting feels a bit forced and doesn’t quite fit the material. Coriolanus is essentially banished from his country because he doesn’t come across very well on TV talk show and a small mob get a bit angry. If only we could try this with David Cameron (yeah, that’s right, I just made a tenuous political reference).

Another issue is that despite the audience constantly being told he’s so tough and manly, Coriolanus comes across as extremely whiney and emotionally unstable. This grates after a while. He’s supposed to be some sort of ultra-tough general, but all he really wants is his mother’s approval. I ended up disliking Fiennes’ character not for his actions but because he wouldn’t shut up. I found Butler a lot more watchable, playing a dangerous yet ultimately likeable man. This is no fault of Fiennes but is actually inherent in the writing. Has anyone ever questioned Shakespeare’s script-writing abilities before? Coriolanus is solid, but it’s certainly no Hamlet or Macbeth.

It has its flaws then, but Coriolanus is still pretty good. It’s an interesting take on Shakespeare and a strong directorial debut that is largely quite enjoyable to watch.

 

[xrr rating=3/5]

 

Coriolanus screens at the London Film Festival this weekend and then is released fully in January 2012.

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