Coriolanus is an impressive directorial debut by Ralph Fiennes. In many ways, he’s played it safe: taken a Shakespeare play he’s already performed on stage in and transported it to a modern setting. ‘A place calling itself Rome,’ we are told. The only thing Roman here are the intricacies of the original play, which are faithfully translated into a modern setting.
Fiennes plays General Caius Martius who is expelled from his home due to his lack of servitude. He then does what any logical man would: join forces with his sworn enemy, Gerard Butler’s Aufidius, in order to enact bloody revenge. For the most part the film succeeds in telling a straightforward story and does not get bogged down in the verbose, which is a common problem with Western Shakespeare adaptions. Perhaps Fiennes is assisted by the original text, as it should be noted Hamlet it is not. It’s the sort of Shakespeare that is perfect for a big screen adaptation as at its core it is a typical Jacobean revenge tragedy.
Fiennes has snapped up the right person for a modern warfare adaption in Barry Ackroyd, who did such wonderful things in The Hurt Locker. Here the action is taught, vibrant and deliriously bloody. Fiennes spends the majority of the film bathed in blood and it’s brilliant fun to watch. Some may argue that the opening section of the movie is pretty light on exposition – a siege against of Corioli – but the movie is better for it – modern audiences will not abide soliloquy in the midst of a slaughter. Having said that, the movie has too many scenes set in a CNN-esque news channel, which adds weak pastiche to the serious tone of the movie. Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow has a cameo, which says it all. Oh, and sometimes soliloquys do happen moments before a grenade is thrown, or a murder is enacted. But, hey, this is Shakespeare after all.
The crux for most Shakespeare adaptations is of course the acting, and here I am delighted to confirm that is fine indeed. Whilst no one actor erupts on the screen and makes the film their own, the ensemble comes together solidly. The whole event is underpinned by a fitful, and at times mesmerising, performance by Fiennes. He is not always convincing as the revengeful general (perhaps due to the fact this is his first time directing himself) but when he gets it right, which is often, he is a screen presence to be reckoned with. Coriolanus is an intriguing character, but he perhaps never ascends to the highest echelons of the Shakespearean cannon. After this performance, Fiennes could end up being remembered as the definitive one. Other acting highlights include Vanessa Redgrave’s Volumnia, Coriolanus’s proud mother, whilst Butler is sturdy as Aufidius.
As a spectacle, Coriolanus is intense, dark and war-ravaged. Corpses abound throughout the entire duration and I don’t believe a single joke was cracked. This is powerful and forceful directorial debut by Fiennes and the play looks all the better for it. Roll on King Lear?