The wonderful actor Ralph Fiennes makes his directorial debut with “Coriolanus”, a modern-day version of Shakespeare’s 400 year old play. It’s such an interesting and faithful take on the Shakespeare tragedy. While the film takes place in an entirely different time period than the one the play was written in, it’s still a wonderful examination of war and politics as well as an enthralling look at a truly mesmerizing character. It’s an incredibly unique movie and a challenging undertaking by Fiennes especially since he not only directed the picture but also starred in it.
Fiennes plays Caius Martius, an accomplished Roman general who finds himself at odds with the people of Rome after overseeing the government’s effort to hoard up all of the grain during a food shortage. Martius has no love for the people. He finds them contemptible and he doesn’t trust them nor does he respect them. After Martius squelches a riot led by an anti-government protest group, two politicians Sicinius (James Nesbitt) and Brutus (Paul Jesson) seize the opportunity to gather support from the people by speaking out against him. It’s here that Fiennes the director gives us our first look at the political maneuvering and manipulation that plays such a big part of the story.
But after Rome’s bitter enemy the Volscians begin moving closer to the city, Martius and the army head out to meet them. The Volscians are led by Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). Aufidius and Martius have met in battle several times and have developed a deep-rooted hatred for each other. The two bring their armies and engage in a bloody urban gun battle that results in the Volscians falling back. Martius is welcomed back to Rome as a wounded war hero. He’s awarded the name Coriolanus in honor of his service and is encouraged to run for Consul by his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) and Menenius (Brian Cox), a Roman Senator sympathetic to Coriolanus and his family. But in the midst of his popularity, his pride and stubbornness combined with the ambitions of the self-seeking politicians put him at odds once more with the people of Rome. This time Sicinius and Brutus get what they want and Coriolanus is banished from Rome. Burning with anger and blood-thirsty for vengeance, Coriolanus forms the most unlikely of alliances to pay Rome back for what they’ve done to him.
Fiennes delivers a bold and vigorous performance. He shapes and develops Coriolanus through every scene and we quickly understand that he’s a very complex individual. He’s hampered by his unbriddled arrogance and refusal to compromise the smallest thing that he feels may question his authenticity. He’s also a soldier who loves Rome and a man who loves his family. But even when in the comfort of those people and things he loves, he finds it hard to function as he should. Fiennes perfectly sells all of this to us and I was completely enthralled in the character.
Fiennes is also helped by a phenomenal supporting cast. Gerard Butler gets back on track after a few subpar performances in some really subpar movies. Here he’s really good and I was immedietaly reminded that he can be a solid actor. Vanessa Redgrave was simply fabulous as Coriolanus’ mother. She shares several brilliant scenes with Fiennes that you just can’t take your eyes off of. I also loved Jessica Chastain who gives another understated and measured performance as Coriolanus’ wife. I couldn’t help but find similarities between this and her role in “Take Shelter” even though they are two very different films. Even Brian Cox, an actor that I haven’t always appreciated, is really good here.
One of the first things that you’ll notice when watching “Coriolanus” is that it uses the classic Shakespeare lines and language. At first I wasn’t 100% sure if I liked it or not. It was a little jarring at first seeing it used in such a modern setting. But before long I was perfectly sold on it and I was amazed at how fluid and seamless Fiennes made it feel. Now I admit, there were a few moments where I simply didn’t follow what was being said and a few that just didn’t fit with the current day setting. But these moments were rare and overall it was pretty remarkable what the movie was able to accomplish.
I also have to mention that “Coriolanus” is a really good looking picture. Fiennes doesn’t try to do too much with the camera but he clearly has a good eye for framing shots. The film also has a unique look to it and a lot of that has to do with the decision to shoot in Serbia. The locations have a gloomy almost war-torn look to them and not I’m not just talking about the action sequences. Speaking of that, the movie does feature some pretty gritty action that are made even more believable in large part due to the setting that resembles what Serbia may have been like just a few years earlier. Fiennes doesn’t exclude the blood but he doesn’t load these scenes down with them either. Instead he focuses on Coriolanus and his combat intensity as he leads his men through the streets. It works really well. He also tells a lot of the story through some clever usage of the Roman media, particularly a news channel called Fidelis TV. There’s some interesting commentary on the power and influence of the media and we see it through a host of really effective news clips and talk shows.
I was excited about “Coriolanus” but I was caught a little off guard. The Shakespearian dialogue took some adjusting to at first but as I mentioned, soon I was completely wrapped up in it. This was an extremely ambitious project for Ralph Fiennes especially for his first attempt at directing. But this is an impressive and auspicious debut from this already seasoned actor. On that note, his performance is simply fantastic and he brilliantly portrays one of the most intriguing characters I’ve seen on screen in a while. But he’s not alone. The film is also helped by a tremendous supporting cast. I really enjoyed “Coriolanus”. It’s not just a unique and daring movie. It’s also one of the best movies of the year so far.