Ralph Fiennes makes a bold directorial debut with this contemporary adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s later, lesser-known tragedies, transplanting the Bard’s original poetry to a modern-day city rife with foreign warfare, class conflict and political power plays. The present-day parallels are obvious and numerous—from the Russian-Chechen hostilities that Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan drew on during preproduction to today’s Occupy Wall Street scuffles. But what one encounters in the theater is less the delivery of a pointed message than a powerful, rapturous viewing experience that strikes the delicate balance between Shakespeare’s iconic iambic pentameter and an ultra-modern plot, setting, characters and performances.
Set in Rome—not the Rome but “A Place Calling Itself Rome”—Coriolanus picks up, sans prologue (in just the first example of how the film refuses to pander to its audience), in the middle of a revolution. A food crisis has widened the gap between the patrician and plebeian classes, resulting in a riot at the gates guarding the city’s grain supply. The revolt is firmly put down by General Caius Martius (Fiennes), a noble (in both senses of the word) soldier who is unable—and unwilling—to hide his distaste for the common man.
Fiennes, who first sparked to the idea of a film version of Coriolanus when he played the role onstage in 2000, sinks his teeth into the throat of the part and doesn’t let go, capturing and conveying in his singular way both the gentility of his aristocratic heritage and the rage of a primitive warrior. Aided by close-up camerawork, the film finds not only the spittle during his most passionate speeches but the subtleties of expression in his performance that can’t be conveyed in live theater as he lends comprehension and life to Shakespeare’s dynamic language.
Villain swiftly becomes hero, however, when Rome is provoked by Volsces, a neighboring state with a vexing guerrilla-style army led by Martius’ sworn enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). Although outmanned and outgunned, Martius strikes back, single-handedly rallying his troops to take the Volscian city of Corioles. These battle scenes are shot with a gritty realism, with handheld documentary-style camerawork that evokes The Hurt Locker on the battle-worn streets of ancient Rome (an apt comparison, given DP Barry Ackroyd photographed both), while bloodied combatants spout erudite monologues. (“Make you a sword of me!”) The juxtaposition works sublimely: War is, after all, epic, and it is operatic.
Upon his return to Rome with a couple more scars added to his collection, Martius is awarded the title “Coriolanus” in honor of his victory, and his ambitious mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) pushes him to leverage his popularity into a political career. He easily wins the support of the Senate; the public, however, is another story. Incapable of ingratiating himself with the masses, the proud and temperamental aristocrat plays into the hands of his political enemies, who turn the people against him, accuse him of treason and banish him from the city. Exiled and alone, Coriolanus turns to his rival, Aufidius.
Although Butler’s role is significantly secondary to Fiennes’, the relationship between Coriolanus and Aufidius is central to both the plot and the development of the titular character. Aufidius (played with comradely virility by Butler) is at once Coriolanus’ foe and his foil, a leader who inspires loyalty by being one of the guys, a man of the people who walks among his civilians, not above them. They are each other’s worst enemies and most admired opponents. It’s this bond—not the one with his gentle wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain), not the one with his domineering mother Volumnia (whose very name speaks volumes about her influence over him)—that defines and destroys him.
Meanwhile, recasting, for example, man-on-the-street observations as TV punditry, Logan’s script at once cleverly updates the story’s political machinations and comments on the role of media and image in contemporary politics (as well as on the reintegration of war veterans into regular society). Aside from Shakespeare’s marvelous language, there’s a narrative and thematic modernity to every aspect of this production, from its international urban setting and multicultural cast to the delivery of the dialogue and the very body language used by the actors. (Brian Cox’s practiced politician Menenius, particularly, comes to mind.)
At times, especially in some crowd scenes, one gets the sense that the tight claustrophobic framing was as much due to budgetary limitations as an aesthetic choice, but that’s a quibble about a psychological portrait as transportive as this one, in which even Ilan Eshkeri’s percussive, propulsive score is memorable.