Another Shakespearian text receives the contemporary treatment (albeit via one of his lesser-known plays) with Bard veteran Ralph Fiennes making his directorial debut alongside ably filling the central role of proud and defiant general, Gaius Marcius Coriolanus.
The ruler of Rome (portrayed here as a faceless English city), Coriolanus is a fierce, unrepentant soldier whose power and authority is called into question by the lower-class citizens who are on cusp of forging a civil war. Two scheming politicians, Sicinius and Brutus, convince the people to cast out their leader, and he is soon banished from his kingdom, leaving his wife and young son behind, along with his mother Volumnia – a commanding and pivotal figure in his life who has steered him through his military and political career.
Left to wander the land, he journeys to Volsci, the region which is home to his mortal enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). Making peace with him, they unite together with the intention of trekking back to Rome to destroy the place. A fateful intervention via Coriolanus’ family complicates matter though.
This is the type of film where the term ‘acting powerhouse’ is bandied around and justifiably so. Fiennes utterly commands the screen throughout. The fury and indignation he levels towards the people is greatly felt as he (literally) spits out dialogue with a kind of gusto and commitment which ultimately makes you wonder and marvel at how he manages, as an actor, to summon the energy to constantly maintain that fierce facade. Fiennes is truly at the top of his game here, and he’s doing all this whilst having to simultaneously perform directing duties.
Butler is surprisingly strong here too, and the star should be grateful to Fiennes for swooping down to save him from drowning in a swamp of fluffy, indispensible Hollywood guff and setting back on the road as a serious performer. The battle between the warring leaders towards the beginning easily trumps Fast & Furious 5’s face-off (you’ll appreciate the comparison when you see it) as the two go head-to-head with the utmost ferocity, clawing and charging at each other with every intention of battling to the death.
Vanessa Redgrave as his mother is (unsurprisingly) phenomenal. It’s very rare to see this calibre of acting on the big screen, and it should be savoured. All this is captured with a hand-held, grainy sheen (courtesy of Ken Loach regular and Hurt Locker DP, Barry Ackroyd) which serves the story well, adding an intimacy and urgency to the drama.
However, despite all of these positives above, it still feels a little dry, and minus the violence, often feels if you’re watching an educational production commissioned for schools. It’s perhaps hindered by the fact that the original text doesn’t readily lend itself to a modern-day interpretation as well as some of Shakespeare’s more familiar and iconic works. This isn’t to say the makers haven’t tried to made concessions for that, and some fun touches of modernity are cooked up by Fiennes and his Gladiator scriptwriter John Logan. Coriolanus’ exile stems from a heated Kilroy-type TV discussion panel he’s agreed to guest on and even Jon Snow of all people, crops up in a fun (if a little distracting) cameo as a newscaster, managing to make an impressive stab at the text and delivering exposition in his usual authoritative way.
Coriolanus is still a very watchable (the performances on display are worth the admittance price alone) but it’s doubtful if will ever be uttered in the same breath as the likes of Ian McKellen’s grandiose updating of Richard III and Baz Lurhmann’s zingy post-modern take on those two doomed young lovers.
Coriolanus will be released in UK cinemas on the of January.