Coriolanus

CORIOLANUS. Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, Gerard Butler, James Nesbitt, and Paul Jesson. Directed by Ralph Fiennes. Rated M (Violence, mature themes and infrequent coarse language). 123 min.

This film was a strong contender for Best Director, and Best Actor awards at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival. It is the directorial debut for Ralph Fiennes, who both acts in, and has co-produced the movie. It is a filmed depiction of Shakespeare’s play, “Coriolanus”, which was inspired in part by Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.

A fine Shakespearean actor in his own right on stage, Fiennes transfers his talents to the medium of film to direct a very powerful movie. This is a forceful, highly dramatic film shot in Belgrade and Serbia, and set in ancient Rome. Mock newsreel footage is used to accentuate the film’s authenticity.

Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes) returns from battle, glorying in his defeat of his sworn enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), general of the Volscians. As victor, the Roman Senate gives him the name of “Coriolanus”, conqueror of Corioli. Hailed as a saviour by some, the common people of Rome have a different opinion. Coriolanus has denied them access to food during wartime and famine, and they resent it. He has a patrician contempt of the public, and he parades it for everyone to see.

Scheming tribunes, Brutus (James Nesbitt) and Sicinius (Paul Jesson), resent his arrogance, and plot his downfall. Political machinations and treachery finally cause the Senate to expel Coriolanus. Senate instead of reaping further honours on him calls him traitor to Rome. His banishment from his beloved city triggers in him a lust for revenge that propels him to join forces with Aufidius to bring Rome to its knees. The triumphant march of Coriolanus on Rome vindicates his seething hatred of what Senate, and his beloved city, have done to him.

This is a compelling film about the relationships of power, filial devotion, authority and emotions in a political context racked with factional conflict, and viciousness.  Fiennes’ acting is extraordinary, and his precise diction and phrasing give almost the perfect ring to Shakespeare’s writings. Towering with him in the film is his mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), who’s controlling and stifling ambition for her son creates profound mental anguish for Coriolanus, from which he is unable to escape. For Volumnia, blood “more becomes a man, than gilt his trophy”. The scene where Volumnia pleads with Coriolanus in front of Aufidius to have mercy on Rome is heart-wrenching in the proud dignity which Redgrave brings to her portrayal of a begging mother. Coriolanus’ own pride has reduced both his mother and son to pleading supplicants, so sealing his fate for the tragedy that lies ahead. His flawed character has failed to recognize the value of love, and it is his love of Rome and his mother that both identifies and destroys him. The final scene, where Coriolanus submits himself to Aufidius for bloody retribution at Aufidius’ ambivalent hands, is a tour de force of Fiennes’ acting and bold direction.

Barry Ackroyd comes to this film from photographing “The Hurt Locker” (2008), and he gives the movie’s battle scenes an extraordinary visual intensity. The war scenes and torture scenes are bloody and brutal, and the violence shown in the movie fits the context of modern day warfare that Fiennes has created deliberately. The story is really about war on the battlefields of the Balkans in the 21st. century.

This movie is an outstanding adaptation of Shakespeare to the screen, and it stays very close to the poetry of Shakespeare’s words. Fiennes’ direction is intense. His acting is ferocious. His mother is superb. If one is interested in Shakespeare, it is not a film to be missed. If one is not interested especially in Shakespeare, it is a film nevertheless to see, but beware of its carnage and cruelty.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Icon Films.

Out March 8th 2012.