Shakespeare’s poetic firepower gets amplified by the rattle of assault rifles and the detonation of grenades in Ralph Fiennes’s unsettling modern-arms version of the Roman-era drama Coriolanus. Updated to the era of 24-hour news cycle and the staccato rhythms of the contemporary battle theatre, it’s a film of vigorous performances and provocative modern resonances, though it sometimes struggles to grapple with a grim, politically ambiguous, 400-year-old play.
“Action is eloquence,” declares Volumnia, the mother of the Roman general Coriolanus, a maxim that might have appealed to Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini. The fierce Volumnia is played Vanessa Redgrave, who radiates a blood-thirstiness that makes the average hawk politician sound like Tweety Bird. Her sole offspring, Caius Martius (subsequently named Coriolanus), is played by Fiennes, who seems as grimly doomed as his mother is full of ardour.
Perhaps the film’s most spectacular special effects are Fiennes’ and Redgrave’s matching strong cheekbones and pale blue flashing eyes. Also unlike too many film adaptations, these actors can really speak Bard: Along with Brian Cox as the political adviser Menenius, the main players keep Shakespeare’s language chockfull of political rhetoric, and crackling with life.
The German novelist Gunther Grass noted that Coriolanus, with its open-ended politics, “is fated to be, at all times, a reflection of contemporary conditions.” Trimmed and adapted by John Logan ( Rango, Hugo), this film has a ripped-from-TV antic buzz of foreign wars, economic troubles and pandering politics.
We begin, as many contemporary news stories do these days, with protesters in the streets. Famine in Rome has triggered the plebeians to protest against the patricians. Fiennes’ disdainful general quells their protests with glares and insults (“scabs,” “curs,” “fragments”). The more conciliatory senate offers a couple of tribunes to represent the rabble’s interests.
Before Caius can stir more trouble, he is called away to battle the neighbouring Volscians and face the man he loves to hate, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler).The battle scenes are shot in rubble-filled streets (in Belgrade, Serbia) like shaky-cam news footage from the war front. Fiennes, who had a small part in Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, enlisted that film’s cinematographer (Barry Ackroyd) and sound mixer (Ray Beckett) for verisimilitude. Dressed in camouflage gear, his bloody face frozen in a rictus of hate, Caius is the kind of monster you’d want on your side in battle, though perhaps not so much in peacetime.
When he returns home having triumphed over the town of Corioli, Caius earns the title Coriolanus. The political elite wants to use his fame to make him a consul, subject to the citizens’ approval. For Coriolanus to win their approval, he’s expected to put his wounds on display, like some latter-day John Kerry or John McCain. But Coriolanus is too proud and the crowd turns against him. Betrayed by two politicking tribunes, Brutus (Paul Jesson) and Sicinius (James Nesbitt), Coriolanus is banished from the city and soon allies with his old enemy, Tullus, to bring his home city to its knees.
The drama’s climax is not a battle, but a negotiation between the proud victor and his mother, a scene that’s teased out for its full emotional, overwrought, Oedipal implications before the dizzyingly violent conclusion. The politics of war and peace may be Coriolanus’s intellectual teaser, but ultimately it’s a story about a soldier who loved his mother far too much.
- Directed by Ralph Fiennes
- Written by William Shakespeare, adapted by John Logan
- Starring Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler and Vanessa Redgrave
- Classification: 14A
- 3 stars