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Caius Martius is not a baby-kisser. In Coriolanus, the first big-screen adaptation of the lesser-known and notoriously difficult Shakespeare tragedy, this leader of men fights for his city of Rome, but he has no love for his constituents. He calls them “curs” and “fragments,” damns that he’s forced to even share their wretched air, and even refuses to show them his war wounds to prove the sacrifice he’s made. In short, Martius is too honest to be a politician, especially considering that first-time director Ralph Fiennes has set things in the era of cell phones and Skype.
Fiennes stars as Martius, later dubbed Coriolanus following his triumph over the city of Coriole—the most satisfying aspect of which is the defeat of his most hated enemy, Aufidius (Gerard Butler, not quite successfully hiding his Scottish accent). Considering the source material (adapted by Gladiator’s John Logan) as well as Fiennes’ own fierce performance, his directorial debut is an impressive one. The cast (including Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, and the currently ubiquitous Jessica Chastain) lets Shakespeare’s words flow off their tongues with speed and dexterity, and while you may not always pick up the lyricism of the language, you’ll certainly get the gist.
And the gist is that Coriolanus is so stubborn and arrogant that he gets banished from Rome, where the people are fed up over a food shortage as well as their leader’s contempt. He seems startled but not overly concerned about this; if anything, his mother (Redgrave) is more disappointed, having previously shown such intense pride in her son (those half-crazed eyes!) that it could easily be mistaken for bloodlust. (She boasts of his scars, as well as tells his wife, played in a throwaway role by Chastain, that if she had a dozen sons, she’d be quite happy to see 11 of them die nobly for their country.) Even if you don’t understand her character’s zeal, Redgrave’s a marvel.
So too is Fiennes, who hisses, bares his teeth, and fights with a blood-spattered face in a role not all that different from his Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. He’s venom in human form: Following his banishment, he shows humility only out of a desire for vengeance and approaches Aufidius for a partnership. He’s gonna get Rome or die trying.
(Coriolanus’ trip is one of the film’s only laughable moments, as the clean-shaven character hitchhikes until he looks like Jesus. The sequence lasts only about a minute.)
Often, Fiennes employs an unsteady cam to capture action, even if the action is only a swarm of citizens shouting their dissent. It lends the film an immediate and tense documentary feel, which feels especially contemporary and visceral when soldiers are kicking in doors and sticking their guns in innocents’ faces. Yes, these are moments meant to parallel modern conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Coriolanus is more about a man than a war. Either way, Fiennes’ work as director and star makes this a noteworthy addition to Shakespeare’s filmic repertory.