LITTLE ROCK Ralph Fiennes makes a strong directorial debut with Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s tragedy based on the legend of Roman Gen. Caius Martius (I’ve more often seen it rendered Gaius Marcius), who may or may not have lived in the 5th century B.C.
As is common with Shakespeare’s plays, Fiennes has opted to transpose the action into the modern era (Shakespeare himself started this practice, as he routinely costumed his actors in contemporary Elizabethan dress, no matter what historical period the play was set in.) It’s a reasonable choice that allows Fiennes (in the lead role) to strut about with a shaved head befitting the proto-fascist dictator. The result is a bracing and evocative picture, reminiscent of Ian McKellan’s similarly audacious Richard III (1995), which imagined a kind of Nazi England to great effect.
The universe in which Fiennes sets Coriolanus feels like the near-future as imagined by the Occupy Movement, with food riots and the “common people of Rome” marching on the government-held granaries with their cell-phone cameras held aloft. They’re repelled by government shock troops in riot gear, led by the thuggish Gen. Martius (Fiennes).
Later, Martius is dispatched to a border war against the Volscians. The urban warfare depicted, with graffitied walls and rocket launchers, recalls nothing so much as the first person, point-and-shoot battle games of the digital age. Political debates play out on HD screens, and only the tumbling iambs of the language cue us to the underlying Shakespearean roots of the film.
It’s these words that prove Martius’ undoing. His political enemies humiliate him and he makes common cause with his bitter rival Tullus Aufidius (a very effective Gerard Butler) to make war on Rome.
It’s not a perfect fit. Martius (he has the honorific “Coriolanus” bestowed upon him midway through), with his unflinching hauteur and superiority, would never make it as any kind of a politician today, when even billionaires pretend to populism. But Fiennes doesn’t seem to intend to make Coriolanus a kind of allegorical play about the spirals of violence; his character is a fierce individual, not a convenient type, and his motives remain murky and impenetrable.
That’s his choice, and it’s probably what Shakespeare intended - the strength of Coriolanus is how Fiennes’ remarkable visual images mesh with those yet remarkable words. There is something like poetry in this film,some truth that cannot be apprehended by staring hard at the screen, but drifts softly as a dandelion spore through the burned-out ruins of some sacked and dusty “Rome.”
Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, James Nesbitt, Brian Cox
R, for bloody violence
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 04/20/2012
Print Headline: Coriolanus