A modern retelling of one of Shakespeare’s lesser known tragedies, Coriolanus is the directorial debut of Ralph Fiennes, who also stars as the titular General. The contemporary tale of war, politics, and betrayal begins with civil discontent and a food crisis. An urban war zone is the setting for an action-packed battle between the Romans and the Volscians, with close quarters combat culminating in an intense knife fight between Caius Martius (Fiennes) and Volscian leader Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). They both escape with their lives and Martius takes the city of Corioles, returning to Rome a hero and named General Coriolanus.
After this celebrated victory, he is encouraged by his controlling mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) and veteran politician Menenius (Brian Cox) to follow a political career and seek the position of Consul. However, tribunes Brutus (Paul Jesson) and Sicinius (James Nesbitt) conspire against him and the people of the city turn on him. He tries to make peace with them but is unable to do so, and is banished from Rome.
He travels to Antium, the city where Tullus resides, and sees his arch-enemy walking through the streets. In stark contrast to Coriolanus, this man is clearly loved by his people, who hug him and shake his hand as he walks past. Coriolanus turns himself over to Tullus, offering his life or his service. Tullus chooses to use his knowledge and skills to strike Rome and they join together. Coriolanus, fuelled by anger, plans to take his revenge on his city and those who cast him out.
Ralph Fiennes played Coriolanus back in 2000, in a production for the Almeida Theatre, and felt it would work well on the big screen. He worked with screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, The Last Samurai) to cut Shakespeare’s text, modernise the story, and keep the pacing tight. The play has been updated with contemporary settings, costumes and props, and TV news reports are used effectively to summarise key plot points (with a cameo from Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow).
Coriolanus is established as a great soldier and leader who is very ambitious, inflexible, and proud. This pride and his refusal to compromise inevitably lead to his downfall, as he is unable to win the approval of the masses. He doesn’t care what the citizens think of him and feels only scorn towards them, even though he has won many battles and suffered many wounds on their behalf. Fiennes gives a commanding performance as this surly hero, who clearly prefers war to politics. Vanessa Redgrave is magnetic as Coriolanus’ patriotic mother Volumnia, and Brian Cox, Gerard Butler and Jessica Chastain offer strong support as well. Fiennes’ masterful understanding of the play’s narrative, themes and language, and the talented cast make the material accessible and engaging for viewers, even those who might find the text a little challenging.
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