What must be the fabric of a leader? And what happens when the exact qualities that would empower a man to be a good leader conflict with his opportunities to lead. Such is the subject of one of Shakespeare’s lesser lauded tragedies Coriolanus. Graduating in medium but not in theme stage veteran Ralph Fiennes directorial debut is a rich, powerful and haunting adaptation that, if sometimes overwrought, never fails to be less than utterly loyal to the subject matter it’s founded on. Fiennes has moulded Coriolanus into the perfect blend of stage and screen taking us deep into the eye of a tyrant. It is a grand and staggering achievement that transposes the timeless words of the Bard to a world that is technologically and visually contemporary but audibly and thematically archaic.
While directing off screen Fiennes also takes centre stage in the lead role of Caius Martius, a general who achieves the eponymous accreditation after a pitched, brilliantly shot, battle outside the town of Corioles. Primal, seething and powerful Fiennes utilises every stage garnered merit at his disposal to instil his character with the trademarks of his time; righteous anger born from conflict, contempt born from status and love born from honour. However the very traits that have earned him distinction prove to be his undoing as the snakes in the grass conspire to remove him from office. The resulting banishment leads Martius into the arms of his hated enemy Tullus Aufidius (a career high watermark performance from Gerard Butler) and ultimately on to bear down upon the city that both built and broke him.
A man literally too inimitable and indomitable to gather allies Fiennes creates a fascinating example of historical man. He brings to visceral life the kind of man that moved Shakespeare’s pen to paper and brought civilisations to their knees with nought but words and piercing stares. Like the greatest of the Bard’s anti-hero’s he’s a complex, nuanced and inscrutable champion of fluctuating virtues and morals but Fiennes plays the character so straight and with such gusto and conviction it’s impossible not to be compelled by his attracting audacity; demanding of empathy for an authority that defies all our contemporary notions of correct governance.
Coriolanus succeeds because it is very much about character, about relationships, and about their strengths and their weaknesses. It eschews direct focus on context and period – fleeting television reports and scrolling news banners provide much of the exposition – choosing to cast key players as the prevailing forces, and this is in keeping with Shakespeare’s writing itself as he too used outside contextual forces only as a vehicle for further highlighting the virtues or flaws of his players. Here Fiennes does this in equal measure by infusing his film with high drama born from the clashes of characters, not of armies or political powers. Key supporting roles are played superlatively by Venessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’ overbearing but caring matriarch, Brian Cox as the visibly calculating silver tongued politician Menenius and the porcelain Jessica Chastain as the wholly conflicted wife of the scorched hero.
There are tense and exciting action sequences but what thrills most is the ability of these people to lunge forward with language, parrying and striking each other down with the words they wield. This language holds the power to thrill in as great a measure as more tactile effects such as physical violence or explosions. This power to thrill with words, to excite the emotions and to leave an audience shell-shocked via a deadly verbal torrent is a skill Fiennes no doubt honed in the theatre and he certainly brings the power and dynamism of Shakespeare’s words to life infront of and behind the camera. Settling the camera within inches of Coriolanus’ face has the effect of reducing our will to rubble before his terrifying outspoken and incendiary verbal flourishes. Capturing our hesitance, intimidation and envy before his power and trading it in for awe, wonder and ultimately love as only a great hero can produce.
Of course, this type of narrative drive lends itself to histrionic performances but Fiennes cast excel in producing raw and moving – indeed stage worthy – performances that capture the mood of the scene in a tactile manner that never veers towards verbosity. And Fiennes’ hand crafts an elegant and affecting mise en scène which drives home the epic nature of the characters collisions. The strength here is that it allows us – even if sometimes the full meaning of the words slip through our fingers – to never be at a loss as to the attitudes or motivations of the ones speaking them. The atmosphere of the moment is carried forth by the component parts of the scene that overcomes any impenetrableness that can be felt at the uncorrupted text.
The updated setting actually works extremely well here with Fiennes never giving in to the opportunity for a guns and gore war feast. Neat moments like locating Coriolanus’ town meeting with the populace in a town market to supplement the similar ‘forum’ are appreciated touches. There is some contemporary resonance – the location for the filming taking place in and around Belgrade in Serbia – but the nature of this warring state isn’t ever highlighted much beyond providing a catalyst for the private wars between characters. But the fact that it does this so well compensates for a lack of any real contemporary bite to this classical tale.
Triumphantly cinematic and rousingly theatrical this is heart-gripping, adrenalin pumping filmmaking where we are bombarded by words not actions, and all’s the better for it. The language on display here may necessitate concentration and an openness to its linguistic complexity but that effort bears rich fruits. It will undoubtedly leave you hungry for the political intrigue, partisanship, factional feuding, warfare and great heroes that inspired the mind of the master whose play Coriolanus derives its life from.