The cinematic inspiration for Ralph Fiennes’s take on Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” is clearly Richard Loncraine’s 1995 version of “Richard III,” set in the 1930s and starring Ian McKellen. It’s not that film’s equal—partially because the play quite frankly isn’t in the same league, partially because it fits less snugly into a modern setting, and partially because the technique has too much of the scattershot approach characteristic of today’s action movies. But it’s still a pretty solid adaptation.
The narrative came to Shakespeare from the Roman historian Livy, who situated it in the early years of the Republic, when the so-called Struggle of the Orders—the political quarrel between the aristocratic patricians and the ordinary plebeians—was in its early stages. As the story goes, Gaius Marcius was a great patrician general whose success against the Volsci at Corioli earned him his nickname. But he alienated the plebeians with his contemptuous attitude toward them, and through their officers, the tribunes, they secured his banishment. Enraged, he turned traitor, and led the Volsci in an assault on Rome that would have succeeded had not his mother and wife appealed to his patriotism and persuaded him to break off the attack.
The peculiar realities of the Roman governmental system of the early fifth century—at least in Livy’s canonical account—were much better understood by the educated of Shakespeare’s day than they are by most people today, and transposing the play, as Fiennes does, into a modern war zone (specified as the environs of Rome, but more reminiscent of the contemporary Balkans) doesn’t entirely work, as the text retains all those archaic institutional niceties. Basically everything is reduced to an ahistorical struggle between aristocratic arrogance and the envy of the common folk—dictatorship or democracy, if you will—that makes the narrative more accessible, especially in a political environment like the present one that emphasizes the disparity between the one percent and the remaining ninety-nine; but it misses something of Rome as well as of Shakespeare.
On its own terms, though, Fiennes’s re-imaging comes off fairly effectively. The text has been whittled down to manageable cinematic size by John Logan, and though some fine stuff in inevitably lost (like the famous speech on the belly and the limbs, again drawn from Livy), what remains is spoken with distinction by a mostly well-trained cast. The title role gives Fiennes plenty of opportunity to flash his icy stare and condescending attitude without all the nasty makeup he had to wear in the “Harry Potter” series, and he speaks the lines with obvious relish. Though Gerard Butler isn’t nearly at home with the poetic idiom as Fiennes is, visually he makes a suitably brutish Aufidius. And if a few of the supporting cast—like James Nesbitt as Sicinius—also seem not entirely comfortable with the verse, Brian Cox certainly is as Menenius, and matches Fiennes in authority, even without that big “ship of state” moment.
Then there’s Vanessa Redgrave, who’s a force of nature as Coriolanus’ mother, an even more formidable presence than he is. This is a portrait of a Roman matron as fierce as you’ll ever see. By contrast, the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain is mousy as the general’s wife, but any woman would hardly seem otherwise in Redgrave’s shadow.
Unfortunately, while he has a fine ear for the poetry of the play, Fiennes has opted to go for the jugular not just verbally but visually in portraying the war sequences here. There’s an awful lot of automatic weapons fire in scenes filmed in the jittery, hand-held style of so many of today’s action movies. It’s almost as though he thought that by adopting such techniques he could induce mass audiences to give old Will a try. Fat chance.
Still, especially in comparison to misfires like Julie Taymor’s “Tempest,” Fiennes’s film represents an honorable, and mostly successful, attempt to translate Shakespeare to the screen. Of course if you believe “Anonymous,” he didn’t write “Coriolanus” at all. But that’s another, shabbier story.