Director: Ralph Fiennes
Director: Steven Soderbergh
WE really do go from bard to worse this week, as the new releases range from Ralph Fiennes’ solid – if slightly stolid – Shakespeare adaptation Coriolanus, to Steven Soderbergh’s somewhat spoofy, somewhat ropey action-movie Haywire and the ludicrous vanity-project that is Madonna’s opulently banal Wallis Simpson phantasmagoria, W.E.
Soderbergh, of course, has a Palme d’Or (for 1989′s Sex, Lies and Videotape) and a Best Director Oscar to his name (for 2000′s Traffic), along with several notable box-office successes (chiefly Ocean’s Eleven and its two post-modern but highly lucrative sequels). But on the evidence of Haywire and 2009′s galumphing The Informant! – I didn’t manage to catch his autumn 2010 release Contagion - he’s very much a light of former days, one who’s socking out a last few movies before he switches careers around the time of his 50th birthday in January 2013.
As his frequent collaborator Matt Damon recently commented, “He’s retiring, he’s been talking about it for years and it’s getting closer. He wants to paint and he says he’s still young enough to have another career. He’s kind of exhausted with everything that interested him in terms of form. He’s not interested in telling stories. Cinema interested him in terms of form and that’s it.”
The coincidence of Coriolanus and Haywire, then, could be seen in terms of revolving doors – Fiennes, who himself turns 50 in December, here makes a belated and reasonably promising move into directing. He’s not straying too far from what the Americans would call his ‘wheelhouse’ here, as while he’s never directed professionally on stage before he did play the indomitable Roman general Coriolanus for Jonathan Kent at the Almeida in 2000.
The screenplay is by John Logan, Oscar-nominated for Gladiator (2000) and The Aviator (2004), and who last year scored a notable double-whammy with the superlative animation Rango and Martin Scorsese’s delightful Hugo. Logan retains the bulk of Shakespeare’s dialogue, which is here recited in proper iambic pentameter – and there’s plenty of it, not all of which will be easily comprehensible to general audiences.
Clearly seeking to compensate for any such difficulty, Fiennes brings the play – set in the 5th century – up to date, with modern military-style costuming, shooting in and around Belgrade. Indeed, his decision (to a certain degree financially-dictated) to shoot in the Serbian capital proves his major trump-card, as this great city’s scruffily grandiose architecture is (a) an unfamiliar movie backdrop and (b) a good fit for a Rome coming to the end of its imperial dominance. Fiennes does his best to amp up the action-movie possibilities of the material, especially in the mano-a-mano combat scenes between Coriolanus and his main battlefield opponent, Aufidius (Gerard Butler), war-lord of the Volscians – crunchingly kinetic stand-offs which nevertheless carry a distinct homoerotic undertow.
Coriolanus is at heart a character-study of a professional soldier who, propelled to enormous popularity by his martial success, finds himself unwillingly transformed into a political figure – even perhaps a political leader – but who also realises that what makes a man (or woman) into a glorious warrior may well render them totally unfit for the compromises and intrigues that go with this very different kind of arena. Coriolanus’s problem is that he is too “good” for the world in which he lives, constitutionally unable to flatter, deceive or heed the general populace – who quickly turn against him and expel him from Rome
Coriolanus joins forces with Aufidius, plotting brutal revenge against his own kinsmen – and when all other remedies fail, it’s up to his aged mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) to avert catastrophe by diplomatic means. This provides the drama’s real climax – the final confrontation between Coriolanus and Aufidius is a bloody but slightly perfunctory coda – and provides Redgrave, so gauntly commanding throughout the movie that she looks about seven feet tall, with a superlative showcase for her undimmed thespian skills.
Best known for monosyllabic tough-guy fare, Butler acquits himself surprisingly well in a more demanding role than he usually essays – while in the supporting cast alongside Brian Cox (who plays Coriolanus’s friend Menenius with a welcome light touch) and the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain (essentially an ornamental presence as his long-suffering wife) we find Jon Snow in amusingly choric mode as a newscaster – the Channel 4 News front-man an old hand at this kind of thing, having fulfilled the same function in a 2001 TV Othello update starring Eamonn Walker and Christopher Eccleston.
For Tribune readers Coriolanus is undoubtedly the main draw this week – one hopes that a DVD has been dispatched to US General David Petraeus, said to be mulling his political options post-Iraq. And while Haywire isn’t a disaster, those seeking escapist fare should seek out Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol rather than pay decent money for what feels very much like straight-to-DVD fare tarted up with a string of big-name cameos. The plot is strictly boilerplate in the Bourne franchise mould, as an assassin trained and covertly employed by the American government goes on the run after she realises that her bosses are out to kill her.
Yes, ‘her’, the gimmick being that it’s a dame who’s doing the ass-kicking – Mallory Kane, played by MMA star Gina Carano, who is impressive in her faster paces but whose line-delivery has a speaking-clock flatness that quickly grates. As does the fuzzy-gauzy cinematography and a soundtrack score so loud and cheesy that one presumes it’s meant – like the film itself – “ironically.” A smirking gallery of big-screen notables turn up in supporting roles, clearly in on the gag, and among these the biggest impact is made by Michael Fassbender – who gets to use his own Irish accent for once (the picture refreshingly uses Dublin as backdrop for international intrigues) and shows off his tuxedo’d suaveness in what is in effect an elaborate 007 audition.
Madonna, of course, had her spell in Bondage via 2002′s Die Another Day, and now wanders behind the camera for the second time – 2008′s Filth and Wisdom never broke out of the film-festival circuit – with her hilariously dire Wallis Simpson tribute W.E.. A quick glance at that title might mislead one into thinking that the picture is an adaptation of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s classic dystopian sci-fi novel We (1921) – but no, the E stands for Edward, as in VIII.
Alek Keshishian’s script clod-hops painfully between two parallel narrative strands: the fabled romance between the prince (James D’Arcy) and the American divorcee (Andrea Riseborough) and, sixty-odd years later, the journey to self-realisation of Wally (Abby Cornish), a glum-but-glam Sotheby’s researcher, guided at every step by her Wallis fixation. This process is aided by chats with the spectre of Wallis herself (“Darling, they can’t hurt you, unless you let them”) and by Wally’s fling with a certain ‘Evgeni’ (“Russian intellectual slumming as a security-guard – dime a dozen!”), his nomenclature possibly, just possibly, a nod to the aforementioned Zamyatin.
Cornish, Riseborough and company acquit themselves as well as can be expected – one would have liked to have been on set when Madonna provided directorial assistance to old hands Geoffrey Palmer (as Stanley Baldwin) and Judy Parfitt (Queen Mary). But their efforts are continually undermined by the picture’s over-fussy editing, cinematography and direction – Madonna can’t film the simple act of buying a newspaper without freighting it with the operatic menace of a Dario Argento murder-scene. Indeed, if W.E. works at all – apart from as an unintentionally comic camp spectacle – it’s in moments of jagged-edged psychological horror, though it’s most unlikely that Madonna would be grateful for invitations to handle the next outings in the Saw or Final Destination franchises.
11th January 2012
written for Tribune magazine