William Shakespeare’s work has been updated for new generations many times over the last 400 years. Actors like Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh made their name on adapting Shakespeare to the silver screen. Ralph Fiennes has been an established and respected actor for many years now, and he decided to make his directorial debut with the first screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy Coriolanus, about a Roman general banished from his homeland who takes up with his former enemy in a plan for destruction of Rome. Often thought of as a “lesser” work in Shakespeare’s canon, Fiennes’ adaptation makes one wonder why it isn’t more famous. It’s a powerful work, flawlessly acted, and gorgeously directed by Fiennes.
Fiennes keeps the language of Shakespeare, while transposing the action to an alternate modern setting. Obviously influenced by the setting of Cuaron’s Children of Men, the police state into which we’re dropped is frighteningly realized. The citizens of Rome are on the brink of riots as General Caius Marcius (Fiennes) conquers the city of Corioles, gaining him the title of Coriolanus. When he refuses to hide his contempt of the common folk, he’s eventually banished, leaving behind his family (a commanding Vanessa Redgrave as his mother, and the ethereal beauty Jessica Chastain as his wife) as he ends up seeking out his former enemy, rebel leader Aufidius (Gerard Butler), to join him in a sacking of Rome. Being a Shakespearean tragedy, things don’t turn out well.
Fiennes is electric in the lead role, his intensity and command of the language giving life to a play I had no prior knowledge of. Gerard Butler is, honestly, the only actor who doesn’t quite acquit himself, and that may only be because of Fiennes’ power making him seem unworthy of being an equal adversary. Redgrave is tremendous as the mother, Volumnia, and the always reliable Brian Cox is also a welcome addition as Roman Senator Menenius. Fiennes assuredness behind the camera is surprising and delightful. He stages every scene in a way that is imminently clear, even if you’re not able to keep up with the language density that plagues many people’s enjoyment of Shakespeare.
I have no idea whether Fiennes plans to bring any more Shakespeare to the screen, and follow the Branagh/Olivier multi-adaptation legacy, but the skill with which he has brought what is allegedly a “lesser” work to the big screen would make me welcome anything he does in the future as a wonderful filmmaker, now more than just being one of our best actors.