Directed by Ralph Fiennes
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Gerald Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, James Nesbitt, Jessica Chastain
Updating Shakespeare to a modern milieu is hardly a new trick, and the results range from the excellent - the Ian McKellan-starring Richard III - to the downright terrible - Geoffrey Wright’s ill-conceived Australianised Macbeth. Happily, Ralph Fiennes’ first foray into directing has a lot more in common with the former than the latter, both in style and thematic content.
The story sees Caius Martius Coriolanus (Fiennes), a decorated general of Rome, come undone when forced to pursue public office by his politically ambitious mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave). Banished, he throws in his lot with enemy commander Aufidius (Gerard Butler) and lays siege to Rome, seeking vengeance on the politicians who ousted him (among them James Nesbitt) and the people who supported the decision.
It’s a fantastic slice of Shakespearian tragedy, and it raises some timely questions about the role of the professional soldier in public life, and the way that our culture judges people by their charisma rather than their competence. Coriolanus is a born soldier, a hugely capable warrior, and it is this very quality, with its attendant brusqueness and air of violence, that makes him an unfit politician. Fiennes heightens this timeliness in his chosen setting and manner of production design, shooting the film in Belgrade and dressing it in the iconography of the modern battlefield, with Rome’s legions fighting not with gladius and pilum but M4s and grenades. There’s always a risk when updating Shakespeare that the change in temporal setting is simply for the sake of expediency and audience familiarity, but it’s clear that play and setting were carefully mated to reinforce the narrative’s underlying themes.
The cast are great across the board. Jessica Chastain, who is fast becoming an ubiquitous screen presence, is perhaps underused as Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia, but she acquits herself well enough, while fellow frequent film flyer Brian Cox is effortlessly excellent as the politically canny but loyal Menenius. Redgrave is fantastic, sheathing her character’s steely ambition and cold heart in a thin veneer of affection and sociability, but it is Fiennes himself who comes out looking the best. It’s a fearless performance, and Fiennes the director uses the physical geography of Fiennes the actor to excellent effect - witness his emergence from the film’s first battle, his shaven scalp and scarred face awash with blood. The full weight of the film, narratively and thematically, rests of Fiennes shoulders, and he carries it easily.
All up, this is an astute and ambitious directorial debut, and we can only hope that Fiennes doesn’t leave it too long between such projects. A Shakespearean adaptation is well within an actor’s wheelhouse, but it’d be great to see him stretch himself further and really test his behind-the-camera skills.