Ralph Fiennes has been a major presence on cinema screens for nearly 20 years, since he came to prominence as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and Amon Goeth in Schindler's List. He has never yet appeared in a Shakespeare film, nor has he directed a movie. This rectifies both omissions, with great success.
Coriolanus is not one Shakespeare's most popular plays. It is neither as romantic as the comedies nor as cruel as the tragedies. Coriolanus is a man destroyed by his own pride and his refusal to do what needs to be done to make people like you. In which respect he was not unlike many noble Romans, for whom personal honour counted for more than personal gain. Historically (and in the play/film), Caius Marius (Fiennes himself) is a powerful and all-conquering general in the 5th Century BC who overcomes the revolting Volscians under Aufidius (Gerard Butler). Back in Rome, where he is expected to walk into the consulship, his inflexibility combined with the machinations of the tribunes lead to his downfall. He is banished and goes to Aufidius to make common cause with his former enemy against the city that has cast him out.
The fact that we talk about the Roman Empire rather than the Volscian Empire may give you a hint as to the historical and political outcome of this particular face off, but the point of the play/film is not history, but ego and power. Coriolanus (the name he is awarded for his bravery in the town of Corioles) has everything – a beautiful wife, a son, a doting mother and the admiration and gratitude of the Roman people – if he would but give an inch. Showing them his wounds is the literal and metaphorical price he must pay for them to acclaim him as their leader. But he is an aristocrat, a patrician, a soldier. He despises the people, and regards any form of self-disclosure or attempt to gain the love of the common herd as beneath him. He spits on them from a great height.
His friend Menenius (Brian Cox) pleads with him to bend a little, as does his mother Voumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) and wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain). For Coriolanus, though, it is a compromise to his integrity that he cannot stomach. And in a sense, he doesn't even really want to be a political leader. He is a soldier, and for him the compromises and petty bargaining of politicians in nauseating. Better to fight against Rome then to take off his uniform. He is used to commanding, not negotiating. General McCarthur is a modern example of a soldier who thought that political power was hi by right, and discovered the hard way that it wasn't.
The most obvious choice that Fiennes the director has made is to film the play in modern dress. The setting – though nominally Rome – looks more like the Balkans, Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Fiennes' Coriolanus is mostly in battle fatigues, gun at the ready, charging into battle without regard for his safety. In a suit, he is like a badger in a dressing gown. His half hearted attempts at conciliation invariably end in increasingly splenetic outbursts of fury and contempt at the petty and putrid creatures with whom he is being asked to deal. And the two tribunes, knowing his fatal flaw, play upon it mercilessly. And so we see Coriolanus baited on television, like a bear with dogs, grilled under the spotlight till he cracks. Fiennes's use of the modern media is one of his happiest ideas. We see people being interviewed, pundits giving opinions, and breaking news on the equivalent of CNN. It feels both contemporary and timeless, with Shakespeare's poetry as apposite to this context as if the actors all wore togas – perhaps more so.
Fiennes's presence along with such an outstanding cast should give the film something of a lift at the box office, though it may not be an entirely easy sell. It doesn't have the levity and charm of Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet, or the classical heft of Branagh's bard movies. But for me it is as fine as any Shakespeare movie in the last 25 years,and an extraordinary achievement from an actor who has never been the camera before, and who combines that with tackling the title role. It is truly a classic.
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