Ralph Fiennes did what few have been able to do in the past; he made Shakespeare’s Coriolanus interesting. Fiennes gave this lesser known and somewhat dry play about ancient Roman warfare and fatal hubris a stylized treatment against a modern-times backdrop. The result is a gritty, violently charismatic pic that proves Fiennes has skills both in front of and behind the camera.
As with most things Shakespearean, there’s plenty of tragedy and melodrama in Coriolanus. The story also contains archetypal characters, violence, long soliloquies, a dominating mother, and plenty of hubris. Only, unlike some of Shakespeare’s other more popular plays, Coriolanus lacks humor and romance, and is bogged down with a sense of its own seriousness. Perhaps this is a result of the lofty subject matter, as the play is based on the life of the titular legendary Roman general.
That’s all the more reason why Fiennes’ rendition is such an accomplishment. He’s taken the dramatic aspects of the play, the character studies, the overt extremities and the social commentary, and he’s made an intriguing film that’s actually fun to watch.
The Roman general Caius Martius Coriolanus fights for Rome, has devoted his life to the military way, and has the scars to prove it. After a particularly dangerous battle against his arch nemesis and mortal enemy Tullus Aufidius of Volscia, Coriolanus comes home triumphant. His friend Menenius, a senator, has political ambitions for Coriolanus and is convinced he can become a legendary consul of Rome. Volumnia, Corlianus’ domineering mother, agrees and campaigns for her son to accept the call.
The only catch is that Coriolanus is an extremely proud man who hates the “rabble” (plebeians) and has a hard time dealing with them. He doesn’t believe he should have to prove what he has done for Rome, or show his scars on the public square for everyone to see. He also doesn’t believe in the concept of popular rule, and as the senate has unilaterally backed him as a consul, he doesn’t see the need to gain public opinion as well.
And much like Caesar, there are two tribunes of Rome that fear Coriolanus has too much power, and hate him because of his arrogance. They incite the commoners against him, which leads to a monumental rage on his part and subsequent banishment. Forsaking his home in body as well as heart, Coriolanus heads out into the wilderness with one aim; to throw himself on the mercy of his mortal enemy Aufidius, and either be killed or join him in battle against Rome.
Coriolanus’ wife, son and mother stay in Rome and fight to have the banishment repealed, while Coriolanus and Aufidius embrace as brothers and begin their bloody return to the gates of Rome. What follows is a senate running scared, tearful entreaties, a truce, and then tragic death.
Shakespeare’s play is set in ancient Rome, but Fiennes has taken the story and placed it in modern times, using war-torn countryside and crumbling towns as the settins. The general look of the film is bleak, with backgrounds and environments reminiscent of terrorized Serbia (where it was filmed) and minimalist Eastern European cities.
The style of filming is also highly effective in the environment he’s chosen. One war-torn landscape is much like another, and the world’s violent nature is certainly a theme not lost on modern audiences. This theme is accentuated with a filming style that is almost hand-cam “found-footage”-esque, but happily not as contrived.
It’s a shaky, realistic footage on lower quality film that reminds one more of war correspondents out in the field and actual news reels of the events taking place in the story. This means audiences aren’t quite transported by the film, but instead remain aware that it’s a cautionary tale. It also augments an interesting sense of surrealism as the Ancient Roman politics and social structure plays out in a modern-day setting.
Coriolanus might not have gladiators fighting with huge swords, but it does have jarringly realistic battle scenes. The opposing armies use modern weapons like machine guns and rocket launchers, but there are also some well-choreographed and seminal knife fights.
Beside the change in venue and era, Fiennes kept the Shakespearean language intact. The dialogue in the movie is exactly that of the play, so there’s a perfect authenticity to it. Audiences are treated to all the sweeping melodrama, but also the unique genius of Shakespearean characters and dialogue.
Add the caliber of acting to the style of the filming, the swift action and violence, and the high language, and you have the makings of an award-winning film. Fiennes practically spat fire as Coriolanus; hard and proud, one minute you love him, the next you hate him. Not only was Coriolanus Fiennes’ directorial debut, but he starred in it with spittle-flying passion.
Vanessa Redgrave played an important role as Coriolanus’ dominant and strong mother. Redgrave seemed tailor-made for this role. Her natural stature and bearing fit the militant mother perfectly, and there was great chemistry between her and Fiennes. This worked well on many levels, as there is a suggested incestuous love between them.
Gerard Butler played Coriolanus’ arch-nemesis, Aufidius. Butler has done his share of brutish tough guys, so this role wasn’t particularly a stretch for him. He was convincing, but his performance didn’t stand out like Fiennes’ or Redgrave’s. Jessica Chastain (Tree of Life) had a smaller role as Coriolanus’ wife. She brought her usual gentle persuasion to the role, and came across both convincing and sympathetic.
A few other notable performances rounded out this powerhouse. Brian Cox played Coriolanus’ friend in the senate. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him give a disappointing performance, though he has played similar characters before. He’s just one of those actors that you can’t take your eyes off, and he makes even the most mundane role interesting.
The political relevance of Coriolanus is not lost here. Though written about ancient Rome, the faceless military regimes and war-torn countries ring very true and very current. Though there was some anachronistic moments with the Roman social structure and politics set in modern times, the themes behind it are universal and timely.
Kudos to Fiennes and co. for bringing this play to the big screen and making it not only entertaining, but impassioned. It might have run a bit too long, especially towards the end (but then, Shakespeare’s last acts do tend to drag). The lack of humor and romance in Coriolanus left me feeling like it took itself too seriously, and the story is sometimes unpleasantly weighty. But on the whole, the timeless social themes and the filming style, coupled with the stellar performances and gritty violence, made this one of the best Shakespearean film adaptations I’ve seen.