Ralph Fiennes transforms Shakespeare’s war tragedy into a violent, contemporary action-movie, filled with bloody battles and torture scenes.
Basically, the story revolves around Caius Martius Coriolanus (Fiennes), an arrogant, disdainful, patrician General who, pushed by his formidably ambitious, rigidly controlling mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), must ingratiate himself to the common citizens of Rome, whom he despises, in order to become a Consul. When he’s repudiated by the lowly masses, Coriolanus’ anger prompts his expulsion from The Republic, so the outraged, banished warrior then allies himself with his sworn Volscian enemy, Tulus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), to wreak revenge upon the city’s wretched rabble…much to the chagrin of his hapless wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) and trusted friend Menenius (Brian Cox).
Working with veteran screenwriter Josh Logan (“The Aviator”), first-time feature director Fiennes reprises the role he played so successfully on the London stage in 2007. Photographed in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, on a handheld, shoestring budget by Barry Ayckroyd (“The Hurt Locker”) and filled with visceral, rapid-fire cuts, it is set in an alternative Roman universe, complete with machine guns and rockets, cars and armored tanks, and riots reported via TV interviews and updates on news channels. The lighting is flat and the actors wear drab fatigues.
With occasional rephrasing, Fiennes retains much of the classic language of The Bard’s dialogue, as scowling, scarred Coriolanus snarls, “You, common cry of curs whose breath I hate as reeks of the rotten fens whose loves I prize like as the dead carcasses of unburied men that do corrupt my air.”
And his vitriolic mother observes, “Before him, he carries noise and, behind him, he leaves tears.”
“My favorite characters – in literature, in drama – are rather high-definition people whose personalities are uncompromising,” Fiennes explains. “I like the idea of setting ‘Coriolanus’ in a world of business suits and cell phones.”
That might also describe Fiennes’ villainous “Harry Potter” character of the slithery, snake-headed Lord Voldemort.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Coriolanus,” like its hero, is a sharp, stubborn 7, aimed at an admiring art-house audience.