“These are the ushers of Martius. Before him
He carries noise, and behind him he leaves tears.
Death, that dark spirit, in’s nervy arm doth lie,
Which being advanced, declines; and then men die.”
Set as it is against a backdrop of political instability, social upheaval and protest, it’s now seems especially apt that Ralph Fiennes should choose to adapt Shakespeare’s Coriolanus as his directorial debut. Having already played the title role on the London stage eleven years ago, it’s immediately clear that such gestating familiarity pays dividends in translation. Working with screenwriter John Logan (The Last Samurai, Gladiator), Fiennes contemporises the play, locating it in “A place calling itself Rome”, a modern war-torn city with clear parallels to the Balkans (it was shot in Belgrade). Rife with political in-fighting and citizens rioting over food allowances, a state of emergency is declared in Rome. Leading an assault on the Volscian city of Corioles, general Caius Martius (Fiennes), later given the name Coriolanus after returning victorious, has his hopes of election to the consul dashed by the political machinations of Brutus and Sicinius, turning the populace against him and ultimately manoeuvring his expulsion from the city. Swearing vengeance, Coriolanus joins forces with Aufidius (Gerard Butler), leader of the Volscian army and his sworn enemy, to attack Rome whilst it’s mired in political turmoil.
The opening assault on Corioles, always a nightmare for theatre directors in terms of staging, is terrifically shot by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (with whom Fiennes worked on The Hurt Locker), beginning as a full-blown battle very much in the Call of Duty vein before shrinking in scale to a brutal one-on-one knife fight between Martius and Aufidius. In the play, Martius becomes trapped alone within the walls of Corioles, his men deserting him by retreating behind their own lines, here a bomb blast incapacitates them, leaving Martius to move forward alone, searching room to room through a battle-scarred building, receiving his famous blood-mask in gruesome detail.
Intercutting the battle are scenes between Martius’ wife and mother, following his exploits via news coverage on television. Fiennes uses television broadcasts (including an extended cameo for newsreader Jon Snow, taking the part of a messenger) to set scenes and progress the narrative, but also with an eye on the use of the media as a political tool. When the newly christened Coriolanus confronts the people of Rome, he does so in front of the TV cameras, his public damnation and ultimate expulsion at their hands taking place in a studio, the vitriolic outbursts that seal his fate broadcast to the nation. Using the people of Rome as guest commentators on the news enables him to dispense with overtly expository scenes without losing the sense of the fickle populace’s condemnation of Coriolanus as “chief enemy of the people”, and provides straightforward motivation for his vendetta against Aufidius, seen executing a Roman prisoner-of-war in a video delivered to the consul.
The cuts to the text are intelligently made, streamlining the narrative whilst for the most part maintaining character relationships and nuance. The political manipulations of Sicinius (James Nesbitt) and Brutus (Paul Jesson) are effectively simplified, even if motivation is somewhat more opaque. Perhaps those that suffer the most are Coriolanus’ friend Menenius (Brian Cox) and his wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain). Menenius, whilst still given plenty of screen time (pivotal as he is to the narrative) is reduced in complexity to a much more straightforward father figure, with Logan inventing a fate for him that’s not from Shakespeare. It’s a fantastic performance by Cox regardless, but he’s a much more slippery character in the play, more of a political opportunist, his sympathies shifting dependent on who he’s conversing with. Virgilia’s part is here reduced to little more than window dressing, and whilst always in the shadow of Volumnia (even in Shakespeare) is still done little justice through Chastain’s difficulties with the text.
Gerard Butler delivers a fine performance as Aufidius; a strong physical presence, he’s perhaps best represented in the early torture scene with the PoW and whilst the homoerotic imagery in the character’s language is underplayed (“…I have nightly since / Dreamt of such encounters ‘twixt thyself and me - / We have been down together in my sleep, / Unbuckling helms, fisting each other’s throats…”), he acquits himself well with the verse, particularly come the final scene.
Walking away with the entire picture with consummate poise and skill though is the magnificent Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia. Piercing the screen with her eyes during the famous ‘begging scene’ as she attempts to make her son sign a peace treaty between Rome and Antium, her way with the text is nothing short of breathtaking; whether joyously guessing at the number of new wounds Coriolanus sustained in battle or venomously declining a dinner invitation after knocking down Sicinius outside the senate (“Anger’s my meat : I sup upon myself / And so shall starve with feeding…”), she attacks each line of text with relish, easily delivering one of the performances of the year.
His slightly maniacal banishment scene aside, Fiennes himself almost fares as well. A man of war with little time for the gladhanding requirements of a politician or consul member in the making, he strikes the right balance between Coriolanus’ stubborn sense of personal pride and self-belief and his scorn of a seemingly ungrateful populace for whom he goes into battle, allowing audience sympathies to shift between himself, Aufidius and Menenius, unselfishly allowing his surrounding cast as much time centre stage as his tragic hero. His direction is straightforward, keeping tension up, even in the dialogue heavy middle act, and he has a keen eye for a strong visual image, always derived from the text; his blood-soaked face in battle, a barber’s chair spray-painted gold (“I tell you he does sit in gold”), and when “this Martius is grown from man to dragon”, we glimpse it as a tattoo, creeping across his neck. His Coriolanus is a fine achievement by any standards, not just as a feature debut; he’s elicited some of the best work from those with whom he’s collaborated, delivering a picture that can safely hold its head up with some of the best examples of screen Shakespeare translations.
Coriolanus – 2011 – United Kingdom - 122 mins – Dir : Ralph Fiennes
Coriolanus plays at the London Film Festival on 16th & 17th October and goes on general release on 20th January 2012.
Tickets for the London Film Festival screenings are available here