I don’t know what Shakespeare purists will make of Coriolanus, but as cinematic storytelling it’s awfully impressive: a muscular, contemporary reading of the play, deftly abridged and adapted by the prolific John Logan, who also wrote Hugo and Rango this year. The primary hero, on screen and off, is Ralph Fiennes, who not only makes a formidable directing debut but delivers a ferocious (and commanding) performance in the leading role.
Although the wardrobe is modern, and the film was shot in Serbia, the setting is ancient Rome, where a fearsome warrior named Caius Martius returns from battle, having vanquished his sworn enemy Aufidius. He is awarded the name Coriolanus and hailed as a hero, but the rabble in the streets don’t share that view—as he denied them sustenance during wartime—and he has wily enemies within the Roman congress who plot his downfall.
One need not comprehend every utterance or speech to understand the unfolding plot: the machinations are as clear as vivid, bloody battle scenes. (It may take a little time to understand every turn of the plot, but they all reveal themselves.) Bold performances by Vanessa Redgrave, as Coriolanus’ mother, Gerard Butler, as Aufidius, Brian Cox, as a political peacemaker, and James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson, as the schemers out to sabotage Coriolanus, support Fiennes’ towering work. Shakespeare’s words flow from him like a mountain stream; the words are meaningful but the delivery seems effortless. (Jessica Chastain is also good, as the warrior’s wife, but her screen time is relatively brief.)
Coriolanus isn’t light entertainment, but its relevance, and resonance, may come as a surprise to viewers who don’t normally seek out the works of the Bard. The first-time director and his cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, imbue the film with incredible energy and power. Like Coriolanus, Fiennes is a force to be reckoned with.