By James Rocchi | The Playlist September 8, 2011 at 12:15PM
From what little we know of Shakespeare's life, "Coriolanus" was one of his later tragedies; compared to his other works in the same vein, it's one of his more complex ones, as well. It doesn't offer us a father betrayed, like" King Lear," or a good man undone by his own wants, like "Macbeth"; instead, it gives us a Roman general who, in his hunger for war, devours his life -- family, country, honor -- when the world will not let him be a warrior and, instead, insists he be a war hero. Thrust into politics, Coriolanus is a general, then a politician, and then despised by the people who called for his elevation -- leading him to ally with his hated Vosican enemy Tullus Aufidus to attack his own homeland in a fit of rage.
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 gives us "Coriolanus," playing Roman general Caius Martius, pitted in combat against the Volscian forces in general and against their leader Aufidus (Gerard Butler) specifically. In modern camouflage, shorn bald and toting a machine gun, Fiennes' general sets the tone -- we get updates on a Roman equivalent of CNN, with pentameter issuing from suit-clad talking heads through tinny TV speakers. The tone is less Romans-versus-Vosicans than Serbs-versus-Croatians --and the work of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd of "The Hurt Locker," "The Green Zone" and "The Wind that Shakes the Barley" is no small help in that regard.
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." Vanessa 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.
Still, it's hard to wrap your head around the play itself -- "Coriolanus" isn't the story of a man betraying a nation from the top down (like Richard the III) or of a man betrayed by his family from within (like" King Lear"); instead, it's the story of a man whose flaws fit into the shattered time until they look something like honor, who is then betrayed from both sides, by the mob below him (Lubna Azabal and Ashra Barhom) and the tribunes above (James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson, who feel like they're on loan from "In the Loop" -- which is not meant as a dig, but, rather, a compliment). Coriolanus is a traitor we're encouraged to root for, or a hero who betrays; it's one of Shakespeare's more complex roles, and it's broken lesser actors. When Fiennes triumphs in the part, it's more a measure of his brute blood-smeared intensity than anything more subtle or carefully shaped.
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+]