While there probably hasn’t been much clamouring for another modern Shakespearian adaptation – meaning the dialog stays nearly word for word the same, but the setting is present day – the fact that actor and first time director Ralph Fiennes has made one of the Bard’s lesser noticed plays, Coriolanus, into such a film, seems oddly okay. With a genuine passion for theatrics and bloodlust that the world’s most noted playwright would approve of, Fiennes delivers an engrossing tale of betrayal, hatred, and revenge that manages to overcome any shortcomings he has as a novice film director.
Originally set in 5th century B.C., the film tells the tragedy of Caius Martius Coriolanus (Fiennes), an obstinate Roman war hero drawn into the political arena by way of his popularity, but drawn under in the court of public opinion by his barbaric and unforgiving nature. Eventually banished from the country he once swore his allegiance to for inflammatory remarks but no real incendiary actions, Caius teams with his sworn, hated enemy Tullus (Gerard Butler) to bring hell down upon an ungrateful Rome.
Naturally the setting here isn’t in the 5th century with the abundance of automatic weapons, heavy artillery, and the proliferation of 24 hour new channels. It doesn’t even seem like Rome, but more of an Eastern European approximation of it. Everyone in the “Roman” military dons the outfit befitting a UN Peacekeeper, and on the opposite end Tullus’ followers all dress like Che Guevara style guerrilla mercenaries. To say that Fiennes is aiming his film squarely at the role of the media complex in wartime is to put things mildly.
Fiennes suffers from the trappings of any first time director. He thinks he has to go really big and broad for the audience to understand his point. It helps that the play he happens to be adapting is one of the Bard’s least subtle attempts, but one can’t shake the feeling that the shaky cam shootouts or the expository use of talking head roundtable shows are a bit of overcompensation. It adds some nice style, but not really much substance to the material that wasn’t already there.
But Fiennes hasn’t had this great of a role on screen in years, and if there’s one thing he does know, it’s how to elicit killer performances from some great actors. Butler stands out with easily one of his best performances as an often soft spoken, but ruthless man of principals. Vanessa Redgrave shows up as Caius’ mother and Jessica Chastain as his wife and both seem highly believable as people forced to relating with a man the rest of the country sees as a monster. Brian Cox also has a small, but plum role as the man serving as Caius’ chief political advisor and closest confidant.
Coriolanus finds its place as a welcome addition to the canon of on screen Shakespeare adaptations, and its one of the most assuredly made modern retrofittings ever put on the material. The thematic material at the heart of the play rhymes almost eerily well with British politics in the last quarter of a century, not to mention the policies of Regan and Busy era America. It’s not exactly a modern classic, but its still bloody good and good and bloody.