Ralph Fiennes has a deep history with this particular Shakespeare play after his much appraised portrayal of the title character about ten years ago. With the help of screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, Hugo) and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker), Fiennes offers us an exciting modern adaptation of the little known and little loved play. Modern adaptations of Shakespeare are not uncommon but there is always the danger that the connection between the plot and the updated setting will start to wear a little thin. For example, I was lucky enough to see Michael Sheen in Hamlet at the Young Vic last Christmas. Not only was he amazingly talented, mesmerising and rather beautiful (in a crazy way) but the adaptation itself was pretty exciting. The action was set in a mental asylum where Claudius and Gertrude were medical staff and Hamlet their patient. This worked incredibly well until the plot demanded that the staff organise a deadly fencing match between their patients. Obviously there needs to be a suspension of disbelief but the scene did stand out as a bit much. When plays deal with plots set in the Elizabethan period there is bound to be a certain amount that doesn’t quite translate. The trick is making sure these elements blend in enough that it doesn’t really matter.
For Fiennes’ masterpiece, the centurions of Ancient Rome have been replaced with modern soldiers armed with the AK-47s and running the risk of getting caught up in impressive explosions. Logan’s script cuts down the lengthy tragedy down to two hours of classic drama and heart-stopping action. It is a film that shows the necessary appreciation to its source whilst avoiding the potential trap of a straightforward and traditional production. Logan includes as much of Shakespeare’s language as is possible and all of the key scenes have been given due care and attention. Filmed on location in Belgrade, the costumes, props and cinematography could be taken straight out of most modern war films. Gone is the city of Rome and the action is placed in a modern Balkan like state. The political focus of this play fits well into the turbulent times we have all seen in the past few years. In Logan’s skilled hands and with a certain amount of help from modern scenes we are all familiar with (smart-phones, internet streamed assassinations and satellite news) this Ancient Roman tragedy becomes a modern tale of the struggle for power and respect. For my part, I enjoyed the way that certain conversations that organically would have taken place between Roman citizens were transformed into news items and interviews with experts. I can understand the reviewers who found it a little too tongue-in-cheek but I relished the cameo by Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow and firmly believe he should do all news items in Shakespearean language from now on. It is amazing how easily the play fits into this setting and it only goes to remind us how relevant the issues Shakespeare raised 400 years ago. The place which calls itself Rome could indeed be anywhere and the action sequences and rolling news could well have been seen on any news channel in recent times.
Thanks mostly to the fantastic work of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd who most recently worked on the Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker. As expected from Ackroyd he places the camera in the centre of the action creating scenes of shockingly realistic and immediate brutality. The action sequences themselves firmly place the play within a modern setting. Ackroyd is the main man when it comes to putting the shaky cam in the thick of the action. It sets us up for some exquisite visuals and effects as Coriolanus and his men advance on their enemy. Shakespeare’s own Rambo dispenses his brutal punishment on those who are posing a threat to his city and he walks out to meet his adversary covered in their blood. Fiennes has certainly ensured that, visually at least, his soldier is the centre of attention. In this modern setting Fiennes has transformed the Roman soldier into a Nineties Balkan warlord like figure. There is a striking image towards the end of the film when Coriolanus, with his shaved head and army fatigues, accepts his wife and mother whilst slouching in his chair surrounded by gunmen with his legs splayed. It is the ultimate sign of his manly arrogance and sums up his actions throughout the film. He is a soldier, a killer and he demands the respect that comes with it. Fiennes has never been one of my favourite actors but he shows a certain amount of restraint here but plays the title character with his usual intensity.
One of Fiennes’ greatest decisions was to surround himself with a supporting cast made up of truly wonderful actors. Despite placing himself in the key role, Fiennes takes a step back and allows seasoned performers like Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox do what they do best. Unsurprisingly, Redgrave gives us the standout performance of the entire film. In a case of life imitating art, this is a film that is dominated by Redgrave’s Volumnia, in much the same way as Coriolanus himself is ruled by his overbearing and belligerent mother. It is the scenes where we see mother and son together that really bring this film to life. The pair both flourish in their roles and Fiennes is able to allow Redgrave to show us all why she’s one of our finest actresses. Her performance is so mind-blowing that, at times, it would be possible to believe that Shakespeare first wrote the role with her in mind. In a more understated role, the ever reliable Brian Cox plays silver-tongued politician Menenius and gives us another exceptional performance. He doesn’t draw attention in the way that Redgrave is able to thanks to the dominance of her character but he is on hand to offer us a careful and considered performance.
To anyone who went into this film doubting Gerard Butler’s Shakespearean potential: shame on you. Yes, Butler has made some questionable, romantic-comedy based choices recently and is more of an action hero than a tragic one but he is no stranger to Shakespeare and this play in particular (having been cast in Steven Berkoff’s 1996 stage production). Taking up the role of Coriolanus’ adversary Tullus Aufidius, he gives a confident performance. Shakespeare’s words seem natural coming from the mouth of a man who is more used to playing action men of much fewer words. He plays the brutal Aufidius as a dangerous savage and worthy opponent to the mighty Coriolanus. The men have met each other in battle several times and the fact that he has never manage to best the General is a constant source of shame and anger for the beardy and brooding Aufidius. Fiennes’ casting decision may have been slightly bizarre considering the wealth of Shakespearean actors out there but, after his first dramatic scene, there is little doubt that Butler is the perfect actor to update the Volscian commander into a modern action man that would sit just as easily in the type of film Butler may usually be seen in.
What Fiennes has attempted to do with his directorial debut is create an adaptation of a play he is undoubtedly passionate about that will resonate with ardent Shakespeare fans and those who would normally find the Bard a little over facing. In some respects that is my major problem with the film. It doesn’t seem very complete or self-assured. The action elements and the Shakespearean dialogue fight for supremacy and often find themselves at odds with one another. Logan has obviously pared back the play to make it more cinema friendly but I can’t help but feel that more should have been made of Shakespeare’s words. Unfortunately, this film has not been handled correctly. The visual aspects, whilst stunning, don’t always work in harmony with some of the issues that are at the heart of the original play. Coriolanus may have contained the greatest number of battles of all the plays, but violence and war were never the major focus. This is a play about the character himself and the problems of mixing military might with political power. The greatest moments come when Coriolanus comes face to face with his mother and her plans for his future in politics. It is the politics of the family and the emotional and psychological elements that demand the floor but they are often partly overshadowed by the generic action movie imagery. What we have is a fitting debut in the director’s chair for Ralph Fiennes but it is far from being a perfect production.