Slathered in blood, covered with scars and glowering with a predator’s gaze, Ralph Fiennes makes a fierce and impressive Caius Martius Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s war-mongering Roman general. Fiennes, last seen losing the battle and the war in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2, also makes an impressive director. Coriolanus marks his first trip behind the camera, and he displays not only an understanding of dramatic pacing and difficult language but also what draws an audience to a character with few admirable qualities. Coriolanus is not by any stretch a hero, and yet Fiennes makes him magnetic, a warrior you can’t look away from even when you might want to.
Set in a modern-day Rome in the middle of what looks like a familiar insurgency, the film opens with a mob of hungry Roman citizens advancing on a military-held enclave demanding grain. Martius’ soldiers beat them back effectively, and Martius appears briefly to sneer at them. He has no pity for their plight. They didn’t fight for their country; why do they deserve to eat? Were he alive today, he’d be yelling at them to get a job.
Martius, on the other hand, is a man of action. He’s first into the breach when Rome is threatened by the Volscian forces, led by Martius’ sworn enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). In the heat of battle, Martius screams at his fallen soldiers to get up and fight, and when they can’t, he carries on by himself, wild, dangerous and soaked in blood. Aufidius is, he says with menace, “a lion I am proud to hunt.”
One might think the state would be grateful for this service, and it is, but only to a point. Some come to praise Martius, but others would prefer to bury him, and the citizens are still mad and easily manipulated (even 400 years ago, Shakespeare knew a thing or two about the psychology of the crowd). Martius, who is a soldier and not a politician used to dishing out flattering phrases, soon finds himself on the wrong side of his countrymen, betrayed and banished, with nowhere to go except to offer his services to the hated Aufidius so they can rain terror down on Rome together. And you thought Shakespeare was all about soliloquies and sonnets.
Coriolanus is not a talky picture; written by John Logan (Hugo, Gladiator), the screenplay never bogs down in stagey explanations or monologues. Wisely, Fiennes gets around great chunks of exposition by borrowing a page from Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet; he uses newscasts to set the stage as war rages and the tribunes turn against Martius, only to realize they must beg him for mercy when he and the Volscians invade Roman territory. Also sent to plead Rome’s case are his hardcore, military-mad mother (the great Vanessa Redgrave) and his gentle wife (Jessica Chastain, a bit out of her depth here but with a part small enough not to matter). Will they persuade Martius to abandon his revenge? There’s a reason Coriolanus is called a tragedy. But Fiennes’ assured work as director is more than enough to make any audience happy.
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain.
Director: Ralph Fiennes.
Screenwriter: John Logan. Based on the play by William Shakespeare.
Producers: Ralph Fiennes, John Logan, Gabrielle Tana, Julia Taylor-Stanley, Colin Vaines.
A Weinstein Co. studios release. Running time: 122 minutes. Bloody violence. Opens Friday March 23 in Miami-Dade only: South Beach.