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Fiennes makes exciting, contemporary ‘Coriolanus’

Published: March 9, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

A seething crowd, organized in columns like a ragtag militia, marches toward a city center. Many of them carry cellphones primed to take photos. All of them possess a deep anger directed at the government—they’re outraged by the power of the elites, their tin ear toward their demands.

No, this isn’t Tahrir Square or Zuccotti Park—it’s the opening scene of Ralph Fiennes’ adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus.” Though written around 1608 and filmed in 2010, it’s uncannily attuned to the developments of the last year.

Though originally set in the fifth century BCE, Fiennes has transported the play to an alternate version of present-day Rome—or, as the opening bills it, “a place calling itself Rome.”

These protesters are marching against Rome’s most celebrated general, Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes), who represents the city’s 1 percent. After repelling the protesters—we’ll soon find out he has a knack for repelling everyone—Martius goes off to fight Volscian guerillas, led by the fearsome Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler).

Martius and Aufidius are a perfect match; both lust for war. In Martius’ case, this has been instilled in him by his blood-thirsty mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), who has spent all her life preparing her son to become a warrior, someone more dragon than human. Martius and Aufidius engage in hand-to-hand combat as the Romans conquer the Volscian city of Corioles, but Aufidius escapes. “If ever again I meet him, he’s mine, or I am his,” Aufidius declares.

Martius returns to Rome a hero, and the city bestows upon him the name Coriolanus. He soon finds himself selected to be Rome’s consul, but he has a major problem. Despite the constant advice of his friend, the Roman senator Menenius (Brian Cox), he can’t seem to develop people skills. Rome’s scheming tribunes take advantage of this and goad Coriolanus into attacking democratic rule on a TV show—it allows “crows to peck the eagles,” he says. Coriolanus subsequently finds himself exiled, forced to abandon his wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) and son Martius (Harry Fenn).

Of course, having lost the only thing he’s ever really cared about—the Roman state—Coriolanus sneaks into Aufidius’ camp and pledges to help destroy Rome. With the city no longer his, he’s decided to forge “himself a name i’ the fire of burning Rome.”

Though “Coriolanus” is among Shakespeare’s lesser known tragedies, Coriolanus himself is a fascinating creation. There’s no easy way to understand him and decode his psyche. He clearly despises the average Roman citizen and flouts the public will—not exactly a hero for our times. Yet he’s also strangely humble. When Menenius encourages him to show off his battle scars to garner public support, he refuses, reminding everyone that he had not “receiv’d them for the hire of their breath only.” In a way, he just wants them to like him for him, and that’s kind of admirable—though his fascist politics negate that.

This is Fiennes’ first film as a director, and he’s succeeded in guiding a handsome production. The aura of war pervades the entire film, which was shot in Serbia. When Coriolanus enters battle, it’s a real, modern combat zone, like images of Iraq or Libya or Bosnia lifted from the news. Bombed-out buildings abound. Permanent grays shroud everything.

There’s a wonderful sequence in which the general emerges from the fog of battle, his face covered in rivulets of blood. He looks utterly possessed with a thirst for battle, carnage and gore. He’s a demon come to Earth and absolutely terrifying.

Indeed, “Coriolanus” is at its best when Martius is on the warpath. The film falters only when Coriolanus returns to Rome and begins politicking. Too many arguments ensue as to whether he’s ready for office and whether his personality can change. In one sequence, he enters the Roman marketplace to ask for the people’s support, which they quickly give; two seconds later, the tribunes arrive and convince them to change their minds. The quick progression of events just makes the crowd look dumb.

Though the film certainly benefits from a “Hurt Locker” aesthetic, it would be nothing without its outstanding cast. First among them is Fiennes himself, who unsurprisingly is superb. His Coriolanus is above all else a fierce man, a fact immediately discerned from his penetrating stare.

Fiennes has done well in selecting an excellent supporting cast, with the best performance among them coming from Redgrave. Volumnia is a great role—like Coriolanus, she possesses a thirst for blood, but hers is more trancelike and articulate. As she explains to Virgilia, she prefers war even to sex: “If my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honor than in the embracements of his bed where he should show most love.” Volumnia and Coriolanus’ relationship is the definition of Oedipal; she goads him into conflict as though she’s seducing him into it. There’s a scene in which Virgilia watches Volumnia tend to Coriolanus’ wounds, her eyes ravenously taking in this killing machine she’s nurtured to maturity.

Butler, meanwhile, makes a worthy adversary for the general. In recent years he hasn’t been known for the quality of his acting—movies like “300” and “The Bounty Hunter” didn’t really demand any of it from him—but here he’s engaged in a kind of murderous, almost homoerotic tango with Fiennes.

Cox and Chastain also add to the film, though their presence isn’t as electrifying as that of Redgrave and Butler. Cox mixes pathos and a certain theatricality in his Menenius. Chastain makes a great-looking trophy wife, but she otherwise has little to do here.

“Coriolanus has grown from man to dragon,” Menenius tells the beleaguered Romans—and oh, what a transformation it is.