Rookie feature director Ralph Fiennes and veteran screenwriter John Logan (The Aviator) have crafted a strong modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s bloody war tragedy Coriolanus (trailer below). Fiennes shines in the central role, which he played on the London stage in 2000 to raves. It plays to his strengths as an actor who doesn’t seek to be liked. Fiennes plumbs the depths of a brilliant, ambitious, stubborn, ruthless, deadly, ramrod straight Roman general–with no talent for politics. “This man has no mercy in him,” says Coriolanus’s ally Menenius, well-played by Brian Cox.
And Vanessa Redgrave, as his Machiavellian mother Volumnia, could win the Oscar for best supporting actress. She is extraordinary as a naturally beautiful older woman who is powerful yet maternal, wicked yet loving, logical yet insane: “There’s no man in the world more bound to his mother,” she insists.
Volumnia not only helps to build up this great general, but to destroy him. Jessica Chastain, as Coriolanus’s sensitive wife Virgilia, is fine in a tiny role, and Gerard Butler is superb in a crucial part as Coriolanus’s sworn enemy, Aufidius, an equally fearsome general of the rebel forces, who eventually allies with Coriolanus when he’s ready to wreak revenge on the politicians who turn him out of Rome. The movie is strangely timely, with its street riots and economic mayhem.
Fiennes grabbed some money from the BBC and from backers in Serbia; the movie was shot in Belgrade on a hand-held shoestring by The Hurt Locker‘s Barry Ayckroyd. This alternative Roman universe–with cars, uniforms, armored tanks and machine guns–all fits together. “I can’t help thinking if he [Shakespeare] were alive and writing today, he’d be writing for cinema. His stories and language are cinematic,” Fiennes said at the film’s premiere at February’s Berlinale (review sample below). At the press conference, he asked his three producers—Julia Taylor-Stanley, Gaby Tana and Colin Vaines—to stand and bow to applause from “the roomful of film journalists who know how difficult it is these days to get an independent film made,” he said.
The movie bears comparison to Julie Taymor’s far more visually sumptuous but violent Titus, starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, which was too intense for middle-of-the-road art house patrons, even with Fox Searchlight’s marketing machine behind it. Despite its noisy battles and torture scenes, Coriolanus will, however, play well to Academy actors, who will surely nominate the towering Redgrave. The main question is whether Weinstein Co. will have the staff, resources and stamina to support all its Academy contenders this year.
Here’s a sampling of Berlin reviews:
Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus is a bloody, testosterone-filled updating of Shakespeare’s play, shot and performed with real vigour. This is the Bard done action-movie style.
The two best performances come from Brian Cox, making of Menenius a cagey, fatigued diplomat, and Vanessa Redgrave, quite tremendous as Volumnia.
The way she grasps and massages the part, you feel Shakespeare could almost have written it for her: she’s both implacable and hugely moving, advancing with steel in her entreaties and fire in her soul. Bumpy though the film is as a whole, the handful of terrific scenes it gives one of our great actresses means it’s hardly to be sniffed at.
But the great strength of Fiennes’s film is simply its clarity and intelligence. He’s clearly paid a great deal of detailed attention to how the narrative and the interplay of character is to work – vital in Shakespeare films that can easily get bogged down in versification. No doubt he’s helped by the plainness of much of Coriolanus’s language, which means there is less precious material that can’t be cut. Some of the storytelling devices are a little flip – there are regular Sky News-style video inserts that don’t do the film’s seriousness any favours – but they don’t disrupt the careful geometry of action that Fiennes sets out.
A decade after tackling the character onstage, Ralph Fiennes reprises a juicy Shakespearean role in his bloody, bellicose directorial debut, “Coriolanus,” ambitiously updating the late-career tragedy to “a place calling itself Rome” (actually present-day Belgrade, Serbia) in a move that places this among the Bard’s more macho adaptations. Drastically cutting back Shakespeare’s second-longest play from its original form without sacrificing the flavor of the original language, Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan emerge with a reasonably commercial war movie that is most effective in its least talky stretches, but somewhat difficult to follow in the finer points of its political intrigue.