The impoverished masses rage against the wealthy 1 percent as soldiers return from a long-running war and an “outsider” candidate contends with a fickle electorate in Coriolanus, which might have been ripped from the headlines, if William Shakespeare hadn’t written it in the 17th century.
Director Ralph Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator) have set Shakespeare’s play, which takes place in the early years of the Roman Republic, in the present day. It’s “a place calling itself Rome,” which at turns evokes Baghdad, Kabul and Chechnya. (The film was shot in Serbia.)
With its Hurt Locker battle sequences, protestors with cell phone cameras and Roman tribunes rallying the easily manipulated plebeians on 24-hour television news, Fiennes’ directorial debut kicks your average Shakespeare adaptation right in the Coriolanus, to paraphrase a Cole Porter lyric.
After defeating Rome’s long-running antagonists the Volsci at the Battle of Corioles, Caius Martius (Fiennes), a patrician from a military family, is given the surname Coriolanus and pressured by his mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), to go into politics under the mentorship of her friend Sen. Menenius (Brian Cox). But Coriolanus is not a natural politician and is run out of town, journeying to Volsci where he allies himself with his sworn enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), to seek revenge on Rome.
Fiennes, who first played Coriolanus on the London stage in 2000, is a ferocious killing machine driven by arrogance and his domineering mother. Snarling, scarfaced and often covered with blood, Fiennes dares you to watch him, and it’s not always easy.
The more expected pleasures come from Redgrave, smashing in a trim military top coat and beret, and Cox—both of whom make Shakespeare sound like slightly-more-musical speech. As Coriolanus’ wife, Jessica Chastain is as calming a presence as she was in The Tree of Life. The real surprise is how natural and unaffected Butler is, but he’s seen too briefly.
Too much of the play has been trimmed—the reversals and realignments come too fast, the love-hate relationship between Coriolanus and Aufidius is barely developed, and the homoerotic overtones the filmmakers impose on them gloss over their unlikely alliance. As is common in modern-dress Shakespearean tragedies, the characters’ extreme behavior isn’t always credible.
But Fiennes directs surely. In the hands of The Hurt Locker’s cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, the battle scenes are visceral and dynamic. The ravaged streets of Belgrade give the movie a graffiti-splattered immediacy (as does the casting of Lubna Azabal and Ashraf Barhom, of the Palestinian film Paradise Now, as the most vocal members of the Roman underground), and the gimmick of putting exposition and debate in the mouths of TV pundits never wears out its welcome.
Smartly reimagined for our era of shorter attention spans, Coriolanus is fast and furious, propelled by adrenaline and disturbing parallels to our not-much-more civilized era.
Directed by Ralph Fiennes
With Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave and Jessica Chastain.