A Dangerous Man

Gerard Butler as Tullus Aufidius and Ralph Fiennes as Caius Martius in Coriolanus.Photo: Courtesy of the Weinstein Company

Director-star Ralph Fiennes’s take on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus plays like a furious sketch dashed off in the wake of Fiennes’s turn in The Hurt Locker: the tale of a hardened soldier, a killing machine, rendered temperamentally unfit by his battle experiences for peacetime life—let alone the life of small-r republican politics mapped out for him by his formidable mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave). Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan have pared the play down and updated it, setting the action in a war-torn city-state called “Rome” that evokes nowhere in particular but Ireland and Bosnia generally. I’ve always maintained that such updating is a bad idea and rejoice in being proved wrong, which happened when my friend Michael Almereyda set his Hamlet with Ethan Hawke in the Big Apple. And it happens again here: ­Fiennes and Logan haven’t made a definitive Coriolanus, but they’ve made a sensationally gripping one. They have the pulse of the play, its firm martial beats and its messy political clatter. They tell a damn good story.

It helps that where Shakespeare (or the Earl of Oxford, or Marlowe) had to write “Exeunt fighting,” Logan could specify something along the lines of “Coriolanus slowly draws the knife across the carotid of Fighter No. 1 and is drenched in arterial spray.” We admire this famously unpleasant tragic hero more when we can see him in his element and get a dose of the adrenaline that The Hurt Locker’s Kathryn Bigelow (taking her cue from iconoclastic war correspondent Christopher Hedges) likened to an addictive drug. ­Fiennes shoots these sequences with handheld cameras and gets in the warriors’ faces, chief among them his own, a scowling mask with a map of ugly scars. Those scars have dramatic weight. Volumnia boasts of them as a means of winning the people’s hearts, while Coriolanus (né Caius Martius), compelled to run for the office of consul, tells the Senate, “I had rather have my wounds to heal again / Than hear say how I got them.” I’ve seen two other (great) Coriolanuses—Alan Howard at the Royal Shakespeare Company and Christopher Walken at the Public—and both were glad-handing schmoozers next to Fiennes’s social retard, who’s so viscerally ill at ease that the notion of putting him up for any kind of public office seems demented.

But that is Fiennes and Logan’s conceit and, on its own terms, it works. They don’t go in for political nuance. The plebeians and rival senators are permitted to have no stature, and there’s no suggestion that Coriolanus might be worthy of fierce opposition for consul given his atrocious people skills and possible penchant for martial law. (They do not, for that matter, say what a consul actually does in this modern context.) Instead, they show how much more at home Coriolanus is in the presence of his bitterest Volscian enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), than with anyone else, including his stunner of a wife (Jessica Chastain, riveting as ever). As her son’s most vigorous political promoter, Volumnia is also his most effective saboteur—not to mention the scariest political matriarch this side of Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate.

Redgrave might not be one of the world’s greatest verse speakers, but being one of its greatest actresses compensates for much: What comes through, even on the eve of Redgrave’s 75th birthday, is a kind of girlish, shining-eyed political certainty that would impel many a dubious man to do her bidding. As her most dogged supporter, Menenius, Brian Cox gives a superb performance, at once urgent and gentle, giving the lie to Coriolanus’s conviction that all politicians are founts of phoniness. But there isn’t a performance misjudged or a line misspoken. True, it’s bizarre to hear Shakespeare’s language in the mouths of TV newsreaders and commentators on the Roman-Volscian conflict, but my response was not “How unrealistic!” but rather “If only!”

In Hugo, Martin Scorsese is hell-bent on bedazzling us, and Scorsese rarely doesn’t get what Scorsese wants—by any means necessary. The means in this case cost a reported $170 million and are to swoon over. The super-director has crafted a gargantuan train set of a movie in which he and his 3-D camera can whisk and whiz and zig and zag and show off all his expensive toys and wax lyrical within the film itself on the magic of movies. Marty the film freak has built his own Matrix.

It is not, however, a source of endless delight to the movie’s eponymous 12-year-old orphan hero (Asa Butterfield), who lives in a Paris train station. Hugo’s drunken-uncle guardian had the job of setting the station’s clocks until he suddenly went missing. So now the boy, to cover for the disappearance and stay out of the orphanage, does the job in secret, stealing through tunnels, up rickety ladders, and over catwalks, careful to avoid the station inspector (Sacha Baron ­Cohen), who has a zest for orphan-catching.

Working from a shapely script by the busy John Logan (based on the illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, of those Selznicks), Scorsese and production designer Dante Ferretti pack the screen with clocks and gears and cogs and other round objects that also evoke film canisters. The 3-D is calculated to tickle you, most palpably in shots in which the stationmaster’s Doberman pinscher sticks its long snout into your face. The frames are wittily layered, the close-ups pop.

It’s too bad that the prevailing emotion is technological exuberance rather than the bereft boy’s longing for human contact. Does Scorsese feel anything for Hugo, or is the boy primarily a pair of eyes through which to ogle that set and, later, when the boy meets fantasy-film pioneer Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), to understand the need for film preservation? For all the wizardry on display, Hugo often feels like a film about magic instead of a magical film—something Steven Spielberg has made with his upcoming 3-D movie The Adventures of Tintin.

Hugo does suggest the pleasure of inhabiting an orderly ecosystem teeming with odd people of odd shapes. Baron Cohen finds all kinds of entertainingly bizarre notes with which to express his ardor for a flower-stand worker (Emily Mortimer), among them a rictus grin that would have made Peter Sellers laugh. The best performances are the clear, unfussy ones by Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz as his new friend, the girl to whom he explains his wish that the world and everyone in it were a machine. He says machines have no extra, unneeded parts, and if he were a piece of a machine he’d have a reason for being. We know, of course, that he is a piece of a machine: Scorsese’s Colossal Stupendous 3-D Thrill Generator. It’s not clear if the irony is intentional.

See Also:
Ralph Fiennes on His Directorial Debut Coriolanus

Directed by Ralph Fiennes. R.

Directed by Martin Scorsese. PG.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

A Dangerous Man