Director: Ralph Fiennes
Writer: John Logan, William Shakespeare (play)
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave
Ralph Fiennes makes a strong directorial debut and also stars as the title character in this contemporary adaptation of William Shakespeare’s lesser-known tragedy Coriolanus. The bard’s language and Roman names are retained, but the setting and minor characters are given a distinctly eastern European look, while the soldiers are kitted out with modern uniforms, rifles and explosives.
Coriolanus suffers from the idiosyncrasies common to all cinematic modernisations of Shakespearean drama, but the setting gives it a raw edge. The news sequences, showing amateur footage of popular uprisings, are all too familiar, and the tragedy of the proud tyrant is as contemporary as it has ever been. Certain shots feel immediate and real, but they are juxtaposed with the clear archaism of the language. You get the impression that lessons should have been learned. The extent to which Coriolanus captures the aesthetic of the past year is slightly fortunate – it was shot in the first half of 2010, prior to the beginning of the Arab Spring – but the effect is nevertheless powerful.
The film opens with a march on a grain silo, which is blockaded by Caius Martius (later Coriolanus for those unfamiliar with the play) and his forces of riot police. The march is suppressed violently and Martius confronts the crowd, openly contemptuous of their demands, and leaves them defeated. Shortly afterwards, he is called upon to fight for Rome against a Volscian army and bravely leads a raid on the city of Corioles, which is being held by his old enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). His heroism in battle earns him the position of consul from the senate and, temporarily, from the mercurial populace.
After these loud, gritty action sequences, the film develops into a fascinating character study. Perfidious tribunes manipulate the will of people and Coriolanus reacts explosively against their demands for popular rule. In a sense, he epitomises the kind of uncompromising tyrant that it is currently fashionable to overthrow, but he also possesses integrity in that he refuses to rule by a lie. Fiennes gives a powerful skin-headed performance in a role he knows well, and is supported elegantly by Brian Cox as the objective senator Menenius. Vanessa Redgrave also gives an outstanding performance, with her portrayal of Coriolanus’s domineering mother, Volumnia.
The film loses its way slightly as it goes on, and the personal vendetta appears strangely distant compared with the intensity of the political struggle. Gerard Butler’s Aufidius is a curious character throughout; he is as placid as he is menacing, and his true role remains ambiguous until the very end. The rivalry is talked up but does not effectively fulfil its promise.
Placing Coriolanus in a familiar world was an intelligent move. Regardless of his faults, his bravery and integrity make this a true tragedy and, in that sense, it deviates from the mood of the times. We are given his perspective, and it is he, not the populace, that we sympathise with. The script, for better or for worse, was already written. It feels like it would have been more correct to see the tyrant fall at the hands of the people, although the fact that he doesn’t raises interesting questions and ensures there is no absolute sense of déjà vu. But regardless of any interplay with contemporary events, the strength of the drama makes Coriolanus very much worth seeing.
Extended version of a review originally published in The Student on 24 January 2012