With Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh before him as the gods of modern Shakespeare, Ralph Fiennes has a lot to live up to. In “Coriolanus,” he proves he just might be the master of Shakespeare on film for the 21st century.
In “Coriolanus,” Fiennes skillfully transports the Shakespearean play into a convincing modern piece – all without changing the language. While Branagh’s Shakespearean adaptations favored long, ten-minute shots, allowing the scenes to play out as if on stage, Fiennes daringly transforms the play into the language of film and of the film genres that best suit the material. The scenes never last more than a few minutes, giving the film energy and momentum and making it feel like we are watching a war or revenge film, not a work of classical theatre.
Working with a significantly pared-down screenplay by John Logan, there is time to savor the important dialogue that does remain, and to let images and film conventions fill in the blanks. The television broadcast is used frequently and very effectively for exposition in the film: Coriolanus (played by Fiennes) is a powerful political figure, so we expect that this is how the masses would get their information about him. What better way to stage monologues criticizing his actions than on a television talk show, with the intonation of TV commentators? Coriolanus never soliloquizes, never connects personally with the audience, so all that matters in creating his character for us is his image as broadcast on television.
“Coriolanus” is a play about an angry man whose hubris trumps his political ambitions and whose rash temper causes him to team up with his enemy to wage war on his own country in defense of his pride. He responds viscerally to everything – he is, after all, a military man – and Fiennes situates the play within film genres where this makes sense. It’s a cross between a war film, a political thriller and a revenge picture, with enough physical brutality and honor not to be out of place in a Western. When Coriolanus is exiled, the first image of his departure is his large black boots pounding on the ground as he walks. We get many close-ups of Coriolanus’s scarred face and body, scars he refuses to put on spectacle for political gain, and of his mouth, spitting out words in a fury.
When we change locations, titles flash on the screen to tell us where we are, much like the globetrotting action flicks of today such as “The International” or “Haywire.” When Coriolanus campaigns for consul, he speaks to the commoners and shakes their hands in a montage that would feel just as at home in “Primary Colors” or “The Ides of March.” The political discussions are set in cold business offices, with Coriolanus’s opposition dressed in fancy suits, effortlessly emphasizing their mind-over-body mentality.
These cinematic feats would be worthless if Fiennes got the language wrong, but he and his cast nail it. Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia, Brian Cox as Menenius, James Nesbitt as Sicinius and of course Ralph Fiennes himself, give incredibly lucid line readings, with tones that fits the modern setting. The words may be in iambic pentameter, but the quality of the acting brings them to life; it’s a faithful Shakespearean adaptation.
But this is Fiennes’s first feature as a director, and his inexperience shows. The film is shot almost entirely, and misguidedly, with a handheld camera, to give the work immediacy and disorient us. However, it mostly comes off as lazy directing: Fiennes is still uncertain where to put the camera, what to focus on, or for how long. “Coriolanus” is a thoughtful, though imperfect, rendering of an often-overlooked Shakespeare play, and it’s proof that Fiennes is going to be a force to reckon with not just in front of the camera, but also behind it.