For decades now, I have maintained that Ralph Fiennes is one of the best actors out there. His performance as Coriolanus only serves to cement that impression. What I didn’t know is that he is also capable of directing. Coriolanus is Fiennes’ film and he has done an outstanding job, with the help of an impeccable cast.
Coriolanus is not one of Shakespeare’s better-known plays and I will not argue that this is a mistake. Coriolanus is a dark tale, set in Rome, about a military leader (Martius, who gains the name Coriolanus after an impressive victory) who feels nothing but contempt for the common people who benefit from the risks he takes as a soldier. When two tribunes stir up the masses against him (for their own political ends, it seems), Martius/Coriolanus is banished from Rome and takes up with his mortal enemy Aufidius (played well by Gerard Butler, getting to speak with his own Scottish accent) to attack Rome in revenge.
Fiennes does a brilliant job of putting a contemporary slant on Coriolanus, which is set in a fictitious Rome in 2011. This not only reveals the timeless genius of Shakespeare’s work but provides the opportunity for reflection on some of the insane political and military conduct (think Middle East) of our time (the contemporary relevance was especially noticeable to me after just having watched the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, about the recent civil war in Liberia and how a determined group of women put a stop to it). Unfortunately, this does not alter the fact that Coriolanus is a violent and depressing film about a lonely unsympathetic (almost sociopathic) soldier (his mother obviously had a lot to do with the unsympathetic part of his character) with, at best, ambiguous things to say about the world today.
Nevertheless, for what it is, Coriolanus is an excellent film. Brian Cox (as the patrician Menenius) and Vanessa Redgrave (as Martius’ mother) are perfectly cast. The score has a contemporary documentary feel which adds to the realism of the film. Coriolanus was filmed in Serbia (mostly Belgrade), which is an appropriately bleak and relevant setting for this story.
The only filmmaking flaw for me was the ending, which didn’t quite make sense given a short scene between Martius and Aufidius only moments before, a scene which, from what I can determine, is not faithful to the source material.
I watched Coriolanus with about fifty people. Eight of them walked out during the film, something I rarely see. Did the trailer focus on action and neglect to mention that this was Shakespeare? Was it too violent for Shakespeare fans? I don’t know, but I do understand that this is the kind of film which will have limited appeal. As for me, I have to give it a solid ***+, though it will not rank among my favourite films. My mug is up.