Caius Martius is not a baby-kisser. In Coriolanus, the first big-screen adaptation of the lesser-known and notoriously difficult Shakespeare tragedy, the leader fights for his city of Rome, but he’s got no love for his constituents. Calling them “curs,” “fragments,” and damning that he’s forced to even share their wretched air, it’s unsurprising that he refuses to show them his war wounds to prove the sacrifice he made or try to make nice after a blistering speech. In short, Martius is too honest to be a politician, especially considering that the play is set in the era of cell phones and Skype.
Ralph Fiennes stars as Martius, later dubbed Coriolanus because of his triumph over the city of Coriole — the most satisfying aspect of which was his defeat of his most hated enemy, Aufidius (Gerard Butler, not always successfully hiding his Scottish accent). Fiennes also makes his directorial debut here, and considering the source material (adapted by Gladiator’s John Logan) as well as his fierce performance, it’s an impressive one. With a cast (including Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, and the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain) that lets Shakespeare’s words flow off their tongues with speed and dexterity, you may not always pick up the lyricism of the language, but 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 of her son in her 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-covered face in a role not all that different from his Voldemort in Harry Potter. He’s venom in human form, showing humility that’s only based in a desire for vengeance when he’s banished from Rome and decides to approach Aufidius for a possible partnership. (Coriolanus’ trip is one of the film’s only laughable moments, as the clean-shaven character hitchhikes until he looks like Jesus in a scene that takes about a minute.) He’s either gonna get Rome or die trying.
Fiennes frequently 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, tense documentary feel, one that seems particularly representative of current events when soldiers are shown kicking in doors and sticking their guns in the faces of innocents. There are parallels to Iraq, Afghanistan, and, indeed, all the other conflicts going on in today’s world, though this is more about a man than a war. Whether you read into the themes of Coriolanus or simply take it as a particularly cutting character study, Fiennes’ work as both director and star is a balls-to-the-wall effort even a tyrant could admire.