Saturday 21 January 2012

In cold blood: "Coriolanus" and "Haywire" (ST 22/01/12)

Coriolanus (15) 122 mins ****
Haywire (15) 93 mins ***

Now Kenneth Branagh has abandoned the Bard for comic books, who will drag Shakespeare kicking and screaming into the multiplex? Branagh always was a cuddly crowdpleaser – part Olivier, part Noel Edmonds. The star persona of Ralph Fiennes is a very different construct, hence his choice of directorial debut: Coriolanus, that eel-like musing on war, politics and public image. In the lead, Fiennes appears gore-blasted, scarified and bald-pated – at once man of war and threatening meathead. To co-opt another literary phenomenon, this is Shakespeare with something of the Voldemort about it.

From hardly populist source material, Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan preserve an ambivalence about "the rank-scented many" that immediately sets their adaptation in conflict with anyone showing up to Screen 1 carrying nachos. The tenor is coolly cerebral, with Balkan locations giving this Rome an abstract, mitteleuropan feel, yet Fiennes’ sparse, unflashy visualising returns us to the text without serving to shrink the screen to a stage. Not all the stabs at modernisation land – having Caius’s reluctant political candidacy tested in a Jeremy Kyle-like bearpit jars – but whole runs of scenes remain powerful indeed.

For this, we have an exceptional cast to thank. We can’t cheer Caius Martius automatically, but Fiennes’ natural restraint is peculiarly apposite, transforming the downfall of a figure who sometimes resembles Ross Kemp into a complex and mostly compelling spectacle. Brian Cox (as Menenius) and Gerard Butler (a thoughtful Aufidius) offer fine support, but the director’s secret weapon here is Vanessa Redgrave’s Volumnia, newly tall and imposing, and speaking the verse with extraordinary fluency. Her scenes with Fiennes are properly chilling; for better and worse, so too is the film.

Haywire, Steven Soderbergh’s latest, is modish, somewhat monotonous popcorn feminism that packs betrayed CIA operative Gina Carano around the globe to kick her starrier male betrayers (Banderas, McGregor, the ubiquitous Fassbender) firmly in the behind. Soderbergh makes complex acrobatic and logistical manoeuvres look easy, which is a problem: the film diverts, but its stakes often seem as low as its pulse rate. In swapping Zen cool for Bourne-esque grit, Haywire makes spywork and filmmaking alike appear no more cardiovascular an activity than popping out for milk.

Coriolanus is in selected cinemas; Haywire is on nationwide release.

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