For his first effort as a director, Ralph Fiennes has set his eyes on one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays. Thanks to his efforts, this infrequently performed history play should not remain obscure for long. Coriolanus is a completely modern retelling of a hot-headed mama’s boy who defended Rome, was banished by his countrymen, and sought his revenge. As inventive as Fiennes film is, set on a modern military stage with cell phones and talk shows and Skype, his Coriolanus stays faithful to the Bard’s text, and wrangles a cast of actors with rich voices that can handle the complex language better than in many adaptations.
Fiennes’ recasting of key scenes is technologically savvy, but the introduction of contemporary bells and whistles is more than a gimmick. When Coriolanus is taken to task before a talk show audience that hoots at him like it’s the Jerry Springer show, the set piece enhances the sense of mob mentality. When he addresses one of his lieutenants over Skype, it reveals the physical and emotional distance at which he keeps others, as well as his impulsiveness. Hand-held camerawork is normally distracting (cf. Lars Von Trier), but here it keeps the film from ever feeling stagebound, while that text is there to keep a firm foundation for a rich tapestry of politics and passion.
I’d never thought of Fiennes’ voice as a particularly strong instrument, but where so many actors lazily enunciate their lines, Fiennes’ and his company utter Elizabethan consonants with the precision necessary to sell character and clarity. The director-star is engrossing whether he loves his mother (a steely-eyed Vanessa Redgrave) or vows revenge. The Scottish star of rom-com drek like P.S. I Love You may not seem an obvious choice for Aufidius, but Gerard Butler’s early career, sponsored by actor Stephen Berkoff, included a role in a stage production of Coriolanus. The rest of the cast is just as effective, from leads like Brian Cox’s Menenius and Redgrave’s Volumnia, to minor parts of rebels like Ashraf Barhom’s Cassius and Lubna Azabal’s Tamora. Jessica Chastain, who plays Coriolanus’s wife here, had a handful of juicy recent roles from Take Shelter to Tree of Life, but here is where her voice is strongest – and it makes me even more bothered that Terence Malick barely let her speak in his overwrought epic.
Anchor Bay’s release of Coriolanus includes both a standard DVD and a Blu-Ray disc, with an audio commentary by director star Ralph Fiennes and a making-of featurette.