Film review – Coriolanus (2011)

7 March 2012
Caius Martius Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes)

Caius Martius Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes)

One of the many reasons for the longevity of William Shakespeare’s plays are their timeless insights into human behaviour. While many of the comedies focus on how love, desire, jealousy and pride motivate us, the histories and tragedies contain searing insights into politics, use and abuse of power, and the tension between public and private life. Shakespeare’s plays have therefore long been ideal for modern interpretations as regardless of when or where the plays were originally set or written, their content can be used to make potent commentaries on other periods and times that are more familiar and relevant to the audience. More akin to a classical Greek tragedy than most of Shakespeare’s better-known tragedies, Coriolanus hasn’t been adapted into a film until now. Its brutal and cynical depiction of politics, the military and public life renders it less accessible than the plays with a more sympathetic tragic hero or even empathetic anti-hero. However, it is the play’s brutality and cynicism that director and lead actor Ralph Fiennes explores to make this new adaptation disturbingly relevant and modern.

The setting, ambiguously written as ‘a place calling itself Rome’, is a contemporary grey, decaying industrial city. Coriolanus was shot in Belgrade, Serbia before the 2011 London riots, but the large English cast, scenes of civil upset and themes of class conflict uncannily evoke the images televised during those events. Fiennes possibly planned to make Coriolanus as a statement about a once powerful European nation in decline with allusions to war-torn eastern European states, Northern Ireland conflicts and 1980s English riots during the Thatcher era, but he seems to have inadvertently created a premonition of things to come in England.

Fiennes is an imposing figure as Caius Martius Coriolanus, the commander of the army in a time of war and civilian food shortages. With his shaved head, scarred face and bulked up physique, he’s portrayed as a fierce warrior who walks a fine line between honour and arrogant self-righteousness. He’s the ideal tool for the type of authoritarian government that pretends to be listening to the will of the people as he can be used against the starving rioters, but his war record also makes him into a national hero and therefore a political weapon to gain votes. Most interestingly is the dynamic where Coriolanus becomes championed by the actual people he previously oppressed, displaying Shakespeare’s razor sharp observations on how fickle and easily led the voting public can be, and the peculiar dynamic where the public are often persuaded to support political parties and ideologies that do them the most harm.

The middle section of the film deals with Coriolanus’s public image, and Fiennes stages many of the scenes as if they were happening during a political chat show or filmed news report. Not all of the attempts at restaging crowd forum scenes as fiery debates in a television studio work as seamlessly as Fiennes no doubt would have liked, simply because such scenes feel too small and contained to truly suggest today’s global audiences and mass media. However, Shakespeare may be forgiven for not foreseeing the scope of media influence since his observations about political rhetoric, especially the vast chasm between what public figures say and what they really think, are chillingly relevant.

Both sides of politics come across as particularly grubby, respectively exploiting Coriolanus’s perceived glories or perceived faults for the benefit of their own political careers. While it would have been easy to portray Coriolanus as an unsympathetic brute, Fiennes does a remarkable job in later scenes at making the audience momentarily understand the contempt he displays towards the public and his new political peers. Similarly, while his ruthless determination as a soldier make him a frightening presence in the civilian world, he does elicit some sympathy from being shunned for being a soldier in peace time presumably by the same society that wanted him to be a soldier during wartime. In this respect there are even traces of John Rambo from First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, 1982) within Fiennes’s Coriolanus.

It is the grimness of the world created by Fiennes that allows for a glorified thug like Coriolanus to appear moderately justified in key scenes of the film, and the uncomfortable confusion this elicits from the audience is a real strength. The character is further developed through the portrayal of his relationship to his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), which is not so much Oedipal in affection as more regressive where she dotes over him like a child, to the exclusion of his wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain). Coriolanus’s infantilism becomes most pronounced when shunned and banished by the state he responds by joining forces with his sworn enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) to lead his insurgent-like army against Rome in revenge.

The dramatic change from loyal patriot to deadly traitor is not only the act of a child who hasn’t got their own way, but also that of somebody who is self-destructive. Previous scenes where Coriolanus appears to be opposed to hearing his achievements and glories exalted publicly suggest intense modesty, but it fits the pattern of a rage filled man who hates his enemies, hates his fellow citizens and most of all hates himself. Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s most damning depictions of public life and the psychology of a career soldier, and Fiennes’s adaptation is a reflection of spin, media influence in public debate, the cult of personality and the glorification of war.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)

13 July 2011
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 - Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe)

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe)

Ten years after the first film was released and fourteen years after the original novel was published, the Harry Potter saga comes to a close. In one of the strongest scenes in this final film, a character tells Harry about the importance of words and how things that exist only in the mind are as real as anything else. It’s a stirring tribute to the power of literature and the power of imagination, and it deserves to be found in the final film adaptation of one of the most beloved and successful series of novels ever written. As these novels have inspired people of all ages from all over the world to take up reading, even if this final film were a complete dud (and it’s far from it), the legacy that Harry Potter leaves behind is to be applauded.

Unsurprisingly this film picks up directly from where Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 finishes. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) are trying to find the remaining horcruxes while Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his supporters grow in power. There’s an atmospheric stillness and quietness during the opening scenes to convey the feeling of our heroes being in the eye of the storm. An exciting sequence at the Wizarding Bank Gringotts soon kicks off the action, with the inclusion of an extremely impressive looking CGI dragon. The really big battle scene at Hogwarts occurs midway through the film leaving the later climatic scenes to focus on the more intimate and personal conflicts between the core characters. It’s all completely appropriate; we get the big spectacle but the film ends with the type of action that feels the most faithful to the rest of the series.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 - Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe)

Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe)

This is the fourth Harry Potter film by David Yates and while it still doesn’t hit the heights of the third and fourth film in the franchise, it is the best one of the last four. The previous three films felt at times like extended prologues for this one, but what it delivers considerably makes up for that. The rules of the Harry Potter universe are now established so no longer are there moments where bits of magic seem to be conveniently remembered or discovered at a moment of crisis. All the missing details concerning important backstories are skilfully woven into the main narrative and many of the supporting characters get an appropriate sense of closure along with the leads. It is especially wonderful to see the much derided character Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) finally come into his own and Professor Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith) also gets a couple of great moments.

It was inevitable that this film was going to be quite moving considering the fate of various characters that we’ve all been with for a decade now. Nevertheless, Yates handles such moments well without losing momentum. The sight of the damaged Hogwarts buildings strongly evokes the look of the bombed out buildings throughout parts of England after World War II, touching on some of the Nazism imagery that found its way into Part 1. The epilogue may generate more unintentional laughs than intended, but it still possesses a very affectionate farewell to these now iconic characters. Casual fans of the film series will find this final outing extremely satisfying while the more serious fans are going to absolutely love it.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)

17 November 2010
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1: Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe)

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe)

Theoretically sequels and novel adaptations should hold up on their own merits but what is slightly tricky about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is that it’s not just an adaptation but also the seventh part of a franchise and the first part of a final story. If you’ve never read the novels and only ever saw the previous Harry Potter films once when initially released then you are going to be confounded by a lot of the details and you will have trouble remembering the significance of the many supporting characters. However, maybe once a film franchise has gone this far (an impressive feat in itself) it can be let off the hook for no longer filling in big chunks of back-story for newcomers and casual viewers.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 actually works reasonably well as its own film and considering it is adapted from only the first half of a novel, it feels remarkably complete. For a start, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) all go through a substantial character arc that is satisfyingly resolved. While Hermione and Ron were disappointingly pushed to the side for a lot of the previous film (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), they get a lot more to do in this one with both actors getting a chance to express a range of emotions, which works out a lot better for Emma Watson than it does for Rupert Grint. The dynamic between the trio also firmly establishes Hermione’s importance, which is a welcome far cry from the very problematic dynamic in the early films where Hermione’s studiousness (as opposed to Harry’s natural talents) was a source of derision.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I: Hermione Granger (Emma Watson)

Hermione Granger (Emma Watson)

This film completely abandons the Hogwarts setting, which loses the terrific structure of having each film set around a specific school year. Just like the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (where each season was set around a school and then college year) such a structure allowed for the characters to face particular dangers and challenges that reflected their emotional journey throughout the school year. Part seven of the franchise seems no longer concerned with such matters and instead opts for all out fantasy, with several features that while not completely derivative of other classic fantasy texts, are blatantly familiar.

The focus on finding and destroying the magical objects known as Horcruxes, which give power to evil-doers and corrupts good-doers, seems lifted straight from The Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 also contains a magical sword at the bottom of a lake as per the King Arthur legend but it’s most interesting allusions are to the Holocaust and Nazism, which were also heavily evoked in the original Star Wars trilogy – another wildly popular film franchise. In Harry Potter the world of magic is now officiated over with the iron fist of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his followers, who in their contempt for Muggles (humans) are rounding up the perceived-to-be-inferior half-blood wizards and witches. Victims of this non-witch hunt are lead away by black uniformed officials who look like Gestapo officers and taken into the depths of the Ministry of Magic. One character even gets “mud blood” carved into their arm like a concentration camp tattoo. Hopefully in Part 2 this symbolism is explored further because while it adds a curious extra layer of depth to Part 1 it isn’t yet fully developed.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1: Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes)

Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes)

This is the third film in the series directed by David Yates who continues to make the series darker (this one features more blood than previously) and who continues to overuse a green wash to make everything feel a bit gloomy. The film lags badly in the middle, the acting is very uneven and some moments are completely naff. However, it also includes a terrific opening chase sequence, an exciting wand shoot-out, an impressive animation sequence and a moving farewell to a fairly minor character that somehow evokes far more pathos than Dumbledore’s death at the end of the previous film. While Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 certainly doesn’t fulfil the expectations created by parts three and four in the series, it’s still a slight improvement on the stodgy parts five and six. If nothing else, this penultimate film does leave you anticipating how it will all turn out in the final film, which is a lot more than can be said about other comparative film franchises.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – The Reader (2008)

15 February 2009
Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) and Michael Berg (David Kross)

Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) and Michael Berg (David Kross)

The Reader is an adaptation of Der Vorleser, a partly autobiographical novel by Bernhard Schlink, a German law professor and judge. Since it’s original German publication in 1995 and then English translation in 1997, it has won multiple awards and become a best seller. This film adaptation is aware of its distinguished literary background and the serious acting, serious Philip Glass inspired score and serious cinematography all insist that The Reader is An Important Film. In the hands of less capable filmmakers it could have been excruciating but as they demonstrated when they collaborated on The Hours, director Stephen Daldry and screenplay writer David Hare are more than capable of making such a text accessible to wider audiences. The Reader is not a cold academic exercise but a deeply moving film.

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