By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood November 30, 2011 at 11:36AM
Rookie feature director Ralph Fiennes and veteran screenwriter John Logan ("The Aviator") have crafted a strong modern adaptation of Shakespeare's bloody war tragedy "Coriolanus." Fiennes shines in the central role, which he played on the London stage in 2000 to raves. It plays to his strengths as an actor who doesn't seek to be liked. He plumbs the depths of a brilliant, ambitious, stubborn, ruthless, deadly, ramrod straight Roman general--with no talent for politics. "This man has no mercy in him," says Coriolanus's ally Menenius, well-played by Brian Cox.
Fiennes is also getting some Oscar talk for his all-stops-out performance as Voldemort in the "Harry Potter" finale; at the Toronto Festival, he also played a corrupt British prime minister opposite Bill Nighy in David Hare's spy thriller "Page Eight." During Toronto (our flipcam interview is below) he took a brief hiatus from playing Shakespeare's Prospero in Trevor Nunn's London production of "The Tempest," and started Mike Newell's "Great Expectations" as Magwitch opposite Jeremy Irvine as Pip ("War Horse") in November. Since Toronto, Fiennes finally closed his long rumored deal to play a Bond villain opposite Daniel Craig in Sam Mendes' upcoming "Skyfall," written by his pal Logan.
More immediately as awards season gets under way, Vanessa Redgrave, who plays Coriolanus's Machiavellian mother Volumnia, is gaining traction in the Oscar race for best supporting actress. She is extraordinary as a naturally beautiful older woman who is powerful yet maternal, wicked yet loving, logical yet insane: "There's no man in the world more bound to his mother," she insists.
Volumnia not only helps to build up this great general, but to destroy him. Jessica Chastain, as Coriolanus's sensitive wife Virgilia, shines in as "a silent witness, she sees the tragedy," says Fiennes, who cast her over a single cup of coffee. Gerard Butler stands up to Fiennes as Coriolanus's sworn enemy, Aufidius, an equally fearsome general of the rebel forces, who eventually allies with Coriolanus when he's ready to wreak revenge on the politicians who turn him out of Rome. Butler, adds Fiennes, "has an interior warrior spirit."
The movie is strangely timely, with its street riots and economic mayhem. "You have to make it work in your own time," says Fiennes, who orchestrated the intense battle scenes in the first four days of the shoot. "War had to be real. It could be anywhere, it has to be totally modern. It's our world today."
Fiennes obsessed over turning this lesser-known Shakespeare tragedy into a film, especially after producer Simon Channing Wiliams pursued him to direct another project that never materialized. Channing Williams "gave me confidence," says Fiennes, who sees the world "in constant conflict, with governments misleading people."
Even after Channing Williams' death, determined to make "Coriolanus," Fiennes and his producers grabbed money from the BBC and backers in Serbia. "The Hurt Locker"'s Barry Ayckroydshot the movie in Belgrade on a hand-held shoestring. This alternative Roman universe--with cars, uniforms, armored tanks and machine guns--all fits together.
Picked up by The Weinstein Co. out of Berlin, the movie brooks comparison to Julie Taymor's far more visually sumptuous but violent "Titus," starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, which was too intense for middle-of-the-road art house patrons, even with Fox Searchlight's marketing machine behind it. Despite its noisy battles and torture scenes, "Coriolanus" should, however, play well to Academy actors, who will surely nominate the towering Redgrave. "She has a gift," Fiennes says, "a mystery, she plumbs depths, a truth that is unique. She makes you want to be purer in your character."
And Fiennes has every intention of directing again. After this challenge, anything else should look easy.