As Ralph Fiennes' big-screen directorial debut, "Coriolanus" is a remarkable effort. So remarkable, in fact, that you might be excused for finding the parts more interesting than the whole, or rather the performances and direction more interesting than the actual play they fix on the screen. A cynic will suggest that "Coriolanus" is one of the few Shakespearean plays left in the canon to not get a recent film adaptation -- we've had Romeos, Macbeths and plenty of clowning comedies. Kenneth Branagh staked out traditional versions of both "Henry V" and "Hamlet," while Ian McKellen gave us Pulp Shakespeare with his fascist and flinty "Richard III."
Fiennes is a force of nature here. It's as if after several years of profitably iconic noseless hissing as Lord Voldemort, he wanted to remind us he could act. As frightening as the general is -- his siege of Coriolis is so brutal that after the conquest the honorific "Coriolanus" is appended to his very name -- his mother is worse. Played by Vanessa Redgrave, Volumnia is a cold terror. "Had I a dozen sons … I had rather 11 die nobly for their country than one … out of action." Redgrave is terrifying here -- precise and sharp, cutting bloodlessly. The general's wife, Virgilia, played by Jessica Chastain, just wants her husband home safely, which is hard to imagine, as he seems not to care if that happens or not. And the senator Menenius -- a bluff and booming Brian Cox -- praises the general and tries to smooth his passage from the shouts of war to the whispers of politics. And -- who could imagine? -- Gerard Butler is surprisingly good as Aufidus, whether bellowing in rage or musing on his wounds.
John Logan ("Gladiator") is credited with the screenplay adaptation, and the cleanliness of this iteration of the tale is to his credit; at the same time, Fiennes doesn't merely put the play on-screen. There are moments here of startling intimacy -- whispers, promises, threats, pleas -- that could never work on the stage, where the actor's voice must boom to the back rows. Fiennes also recognizes the visual possibilities of film, playing with place and space in a way that no theatrical production ever could. The fight scenes are a little too fast -- it's hard to tell which Roman is doing what to which Volscian in some of the bigger action sequences -- but the dialogue scenes are smooth and lush, with the measured meter of Shakespeare's language issuing from actors who know how to do so. "Coriolanus" has the earmarks of a passion project, to be certain, but it also has the hallmarks of an assured film from an actor who nonetheless clearly demonstrates he knows that it takes more than just the art of acting to create a work of cinematic art. [B+]
This is a reprint of our review from TIFF.