By Alan Mattli
One would be hard-pressed to find a contemporary actor below the age of fifty who is as accomplished, as experienced, and as renowned as Ralph Fiennes. Over the years, the Englishman has appeared in numerous award-winning films – he himself was nominated twice for an Academy Award (Schindler’s List, The English Patient) –, made his mark in mainstream cinema – particularly with his iconic performance as Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter franchise –, and, as a Shakespearean actor, his record on stage is remarkable. In 2011, he took his first ever stab at directing; his first feature could not have been a more ambitious one. Coriolanus, the adaptation of one of William Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, is flawed but fascinating.
There is unrest among the people of Rome because of a food shortage. Their anger is directed at General Caius Martius (Fiennes), who despises the fickle populace and pays no mind to the common man’s thoughts. Encouraged by the unrest, the Volscian army under Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) attempts to overthrow the Roman Senate. However, Caius and his men are victorious in the decisive battle at Corioles and Aufidius is forced to retreat. Back in Rome, Caius is honoured and issued the byname “Coriolanus”. Moreover, backed by his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), with whom he has a relationship that borders on being incestuous, his trophy wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) and his mentor, the popular senator Menenius (Brian Cox), he is offered a political career, which fails because of his unpopularity. Coriolanus is exiled and henceforth seeks revenge on the Roman people and the senators who turned on him by joining Aufidius’ Volscian rebel cause.
In his directing debut, Fiennes takes his cues from many other modern Shakespeare adaptations – stage or cinema. There are traces of Baz Luhrman’s MTV-style Romeo + Juliet in it, the film evokes Julie Taymor’s enigmatic Titus as well as Sam Mendes’ Old Vic production of Richard III. It is impossible to talk about Coriolanus without addressing its setting. In that respect, Shakespeare’s original remains relatively untouched: Caius Martius’ struggle with the perils of politics is still set in the early Roman Empire, the year is still circa 450 BC. However, these Romans don’t fight with swords and spears; the soldiers are wielding guns. Messages aren’t transmitted through messenger; they appear in breaking news segments on television. Coriolanus’ troops fight their way through gunfights and explosions in a Volscian residential area filled with Plattenbauten. Filmed in and around Belgrade, the film feels less like a Shakespeare adaptation and more like a gritty action drama about the Yugoslav Wars – The Hurt Locker comes to mind, which, like Coriolanus, was photographed by the great Barry Ackroyd.
Fiennes’ eccentric modernising efforts virtually eradicate any traces of staginess, thus truly appropriating the source material and its still-relevant subtext to the 21st century, while at the same time creating that fascinating dissonance between Shakespearean dialogue and staples of modernity – a technique that already elevated Romeo + Juliet above average. Coriolanus offers poignant social commentary on popularity-based democracy and sardonically satirises how this perversion corrupts the people on both sides of the power spectrum. On the one hand, politicians become cyncial, dishonest and scheming – even more so than normally. On the other hand, the populace degrades itself to mere cattle that can be appeased by some soothing, caressing words. The film gets across its message effortlessly, despite some flaws in direction, which show that Fiennes is still finding his style; there is the odd scene that is lacking in dramatic tension because it is staged somewhat stiffly.
But even if not everything works out perfectly, Coriolanus can rely on its splendid acting body to overcome these minor hindrances. One of the most important factors in a Shakespeare adaptation is that it sports a cast of people who are comfortable with the Bard’s language, that they know what they are talking about. Vanessa Redgrave delivers a stunning performance as Volumnia, who almost descends into madness because of her son’s treason. Gerard Butler gives the rebel Aufidius a provocatively nationalist streak by employing his native Scottish dialect. Brian Cox excels in his role as the “honest politician” trying to uphold his status among the people whilst struggling to keep his friend Martius’ temper at bay. Ultimately, though, it will come as no surprise that the film’s pièce de résistance is the performance of director/master thespian Ralph Fiennes. He navigates the tricky lines as well as Martius’ complex psychology with admirable ease and provides some of the film’s strongest scenes. The highlight, you ask? There are simply too many fabulous moments to choose from; be it his gloriously acted fit of rage in a TV studio surrounded by disapproving citizens; be it his poisonous exchanges with Aufidius; be it his indictment of his fellow senators, “the honour’d number, who lack not virtue, no, nor power”, who ignore the wellbeing of the state because of their fear of dropping in the polls.
There is no other way of saying this: this is how Shakespeare should be adapted. Save for a couple of tautly staged scenes, Coriolanus is a rousing tale of how power corrupts both rulers and the ruled. Ralph Fiennes may still be uneven as a director but if his debut is any indication, he does have a lot of essential qualities. His actors’ accomplishments are extraordinary, there is a clear vision to his work, he knows how to compose his stark imagery, and he demonstrates a great deal of imagination when it comes to reappropriating existing material. As a first feature, Coriolanus is an impressive feat and a more-than-welcome addition to the rich canon of Shakespearean cinema.
★★★★½ (out of six)