Staff Reviews: Coriolanus and 50/50 by Fran Jaffa, Front of House Assistant

Coriolanus

Things I must not do during this review:

1. Be rude about Kenneth Branagh

2. Rant and gibber on about how dreamy Gerard Butler is.

Poor Ralph Fiennes. You direct, produce and star in one Shakespeare adaptation and people will never stop calling you ‘the next Kenneth Branagh.’ What makes is worse is Kenneth Branagh has played Coriolanus (of course), and before Ralph Fiennes did. Actually he’s not the only one. Over time this interesting and at times controversial role has been played by Laurence Olivier, Anthony Hopkins, Ian McKellen, Christopher Walken and Morgan Freeman, among others. Despite this impressive list of names, The Tragedy of Coriolanus is one of the less popular, less familiar of Shakespeare’s plays, possibly because it’s one of the few that are rarely studied in schools. It may in fact be this which drew Feinnes to the text initially, as well as his previous experience of the role, since he makes no secret of the fact he considers teaching Shakespeare in schools detrimental to people’s enjoyment of the plays. Shakespeare is not made to be read, in his opinion people should be encouraged to speak it, or act it, to really connect with the language. An opinion which can be seen in his adaptation of this, the second longest of Shakespeare’s plays. Despite the fact that the text itself has been “aggressively” edited, as he describes it, what remains is performed by people with a real grasp of the language and in such a way that it is actually easy to understand and follow without prior knowledge of the plot.

Various adaptations of Coriolanus have been made over the years, all with highly politicised messages and relating to times of civil unrest. It is this universality that Feinnes wanted to get across, the locations could be anywhere (our first scene is set in “A place calling itself Rome”) and the events could be at any time. Obviously any time with automatic weapons and Skype, but it is clear that the emotions and principals of the film can be easily compared to various politically uneasy situations in the present day. That said, he never makes any direct comparisons, or actually any decided political standpoint. In his 1964 adaptation, Bertold Brecht used Coriolanus to demonise politicians and made the Citizens (or Plebeians) the heroes. But then, Brecht had a lot of bones to pick with a lot of people, whereas the impression I get from this film is that Ralph Feinnes simply likes it and feels it can be related to on a wide scale.

His Coriolanus is singular, stubborn, hot-headed and pretty un-likeable but at least he is honest and adheres strongly to his own code of values, as opposed to the politicians who surround him who are, to a man, slimy, oily, creeping, back-biting propaganda masters. Even the loveable and loved Menenius, (played to avuncular perfection by a rumpled Brian Cox,) is part of the relentless spin doctoring that goes on in all politics throughout time, or so it would seem.

Vanessa Redgrave pretty much steals the show though with her powerhouse of a performance as Volumina. Described as Shakespeare’s strongest female role, she storms through this film, capturing wonderfully the manipulative, slightly odd Mother/Son relationship. She does a subtle job of leaving poor Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) decidedly second in his estimation, along with their token small son who has two lines in the whole thing but is used mercilessly as an emotional bargaining chip by his Grandmother, as she struggles to regain control of the monster she created.

The camera work is a little uncomfortable, I have to admit. Initially very effective in the opening battle sequence and at moments throughout, but by the end of it, I was getting a little tired of close-ups of Ralph Feinnes face as he delivered his most epic lines.

Overall, Fiennes delivers a very powerful film, a relevant adaptation of a 400 year old play that will stay with you well after you leave the cinema.

50/50

So it turns out Joseph Gordon-Levitt has an odd shaped head. Who knew? He’s also heartbreakingly adorable and a pretty damn good actor. But this was common knowledge before director Jonathan Levine cast him as the lead in this bromance-meets-cancer-meets-rom-com. The film is apparently based around the life of writer Will Reiser, which probably accounts for its ability to tug all the heartstrings without self-indulgence or wallowing.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a nice guy with a nice house, a nice(ish) girlfriend and a nice Indie soundtrack who finds out from a spectacularly uncaring doctor (who is just a little bit too much of a caricature to actually be a comment on the medical profession at large) that he has some unpronounceable form of cancer which, he later finds out from the internet, gives him a 50/50 chance of survival. After the initial shock ‘What me? But I recycle?’ etc, the film follows him as he sets about telling his friends (or friend) and family, doing the awkward ‘are we serious enough for you to stick with me through cancer?’ thing with his girlfriend, horrifying Seth Rogan (the friend) by pre-emptively shaving his head and settling himself on the couch of equally adorable therapist-in-training Catherine McKay (Anna Kendrick).

The phrase “Hollywood Cancer” has been thrown with some spite at this film, mainly due to its reluctance to show in-depth the horrible, ravaging side-effects of chemotherapy and to be honest, I did find myself thinking ‘shouldn’t he look…well…worse?’ on a couple of occasions. The baldness is a shock but once you get used to the lack of the endearing, floppy locks the only thing that really makes him look sick is the shadows under his eyes and the down-turned mouth as Rogan points him out to any women he can find. That said, if this film can be accused of anything, it’s looking on the bright side so hard it’s almost blinded. Which isn’t a bad thing, it means that the moments when the bleak reality strikes ring true enough to silence the audience as we all subtly fish for our tissues.

On the whole I think this film does pretty well at “dealing with the issues.” Anjelica Huston is spectacular as Adam’s Mother, just the right amount of worrying, interfering and supportiveness. Although there are points in this film where I wanted to shake each of the characters and tell them to stop talking about how hard this was for them, for one second they all come together to make a very warm, human film about how normal people might respond to this kind of situation. Think Third Star, but with Seth Rogan in it. And actually even he is very good, and not the running gag of idiocy too much, possibly because he is, in fact, playing the part he took on in real life (apparently) in relation to Reiser, though with more well timed, tension relieving gags I imagine (though who knows, he might just be like that!). There are some genuinely hilarious moments and some genuinely moving moments and the whole thing doesn’t feel too bleak and hopeless by the end of it. The script is light-hearted but delivered in such a way that it doesn’t feel forced, despite the efforts to elbow in every pop-culture reference they could find. The only warning I will issue is that it might cause you to look at your best friend and wonder what they would actually look like with their head shaved completely bald … just a suggestion…

Fran works at Phoenix Square as a Front of House Assistant and has a thoroughly useful degree in Drama. Her interests aside from films are mainly tea and cake. Occasionally biscuits.

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One Response to Staff Reviews: Coriolanus and 50/50 by Fran Jaffa, Front of House Assistant

  1. Betty Boothroyd says:

    I love the ‘about Fran’ bit at the end! Very enjoyable read overall m’dear xx

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