Recasting Shakespeare in modern terms is a tricky but necessary conceit. To keep these immortal works associated in people’s minds only with Elizabethan England is to miss how universally powerful many of them still are. Screenwriter John Logan achieves something close to greatness with this version of Coriolanus, and first-time director Ralph Fiennes assembles a stellar cast while following through on the best elements of the script.
Fiennes also stars as the title character, a Roman general initially named Caius Martius, who lives only to fight and has no other ambitions or goals. As the movie opens, he’s putting down civil unrest and expressing his disgust for the people of Rome at the same time. Soon after, he fights against Rome’s greatest foreign enemies, led by Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), an enemy general and possibly the only person the title character has any admiration for at all.
Returning home a hero, Caius is bestowed the title of Coriolanus, and he becomes a national symbol used by politicians for their advantage during a period when food is scarce and anger at the government is high. Coriolanus, despite sage advice from his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and his lone political ally Menenius (Brian Cox), has neither the psychological nor emotional equipment to be a crowd-pleasing politico, and he ends up banished from his country. At this point, he joins forces with Tullus in order to invade and overthrow Rome.
Anyone convinced they can’t understand or enjoy Shakespeare is still likely to be drawn in by how modern this adaptation looks. The action is often presented as part of a 24-hour cable newscast, with talking heads arguing the issues of the day. This brilliant decision gives the film a thoroughly contemporary feeling and allows the complex issues and motivations to remain crystal clear for the audience. The fighting sequences specifically recall not only Iraq War footage, but such recent war films as The Hurt Locker (Barry Ackroyd was the cinematographer on both movies).
Inevitably, though, any Shakespeare adaptation’s success rests largely with the actors, and on that count Coriolanus is a marvel. Fiennes glowers and scowls, his barely repressed rage often simmering into terrifying rants -- an element of the character that’s showcased in the scene that gets him ostracized from Rome. The always reliable Brian Cox plays the political mastermind who knows that any effort to tame this warrior will fail, but tries anyway. Butler is about the only actor who comes up short, but that’s primarily because his hard stares and intensity can’t compare with Fiennes.
As good as all the men are, it’s Vanessa Redgrave who steals the movie. As Coriolanus’ overly supportive mother, she makes one final attempt to stop her revenge-minded son from following through with his plan to invade Rome. It’s a spectacular scene because this older woman seems to be the only one physically and mentally strong enough to stand up to her son. She’s marvelous, and Fiennes matches her, signaling in the subtlest of ways how this woman can get past his deep levels of aggression. It’s a warped mother-and-son relationship that, as played by these two masterful actors, is simultaneously beautiful and disturbing.
Coriolanus has never been considered one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, and while this particular adaptation probably won’t do anything to alter its status as a lesser work, it certainly announces that Ralph Fiennes has the skill and imagination to be a director, if for no other reason than because he knows to surround himself with people as talented as Logan, Ackroyd, and Redgrave. Unlike his character, he understands that humility often leads to strength.