Long ranked as one of the least accessible entries in the Shakespearean canon, ‘Coriolanus’ arrives on the big screen for the first time in this ferocious twenty-first-century interpretation marking Ralph Fiennes’s directorial debut. While the play’s saga of political leadership at odds with the populace is set in Roman times, the film unfolds in a modern city still called Rome, but shot in Belgrade and drawing on the visual iconography of recent Balkan conflicts – all grey combat fatigues, suffering civilians and rolling satellite news. As always, when the Bard’s transposed in such a way, the game is partly about how far the makers can push the modernity, yet thanks to ‘The Aviator’ screenwriter John Logan’s guiding hand, the smartphone-shot assassinations and audience-baiting TV debates stay on the agreeably witty side of incongruous.
The key, though, is that the themes still feel relevant: Fiennes’s eponymous general is just the man to save the city from Gerard Butler’s Aufidius and his Volscian assault force, yet clearly not equipped to deal with the political machinations of peacetime. Coriolanus may be driven by noble ideals, but he regards the public with barely concealed patrician scorn. As such, this isn’t a piece to warm to, but Fiennes the performer attacks it with such vivid urgency we reluctantly forgo a certain emotional resonance. As a director, he doesn’t quite pull off the faux-Paul Greengrass vérité of the modern urban warfare sequences (even with Greengrass and Loach cameraman Barry Ackroyd on hand), but he knows when to keep it simple and let the actors rip. Vanessa Redgrave is staggering as Coriolanus’s she-wolf of a mother, Brian Cox effortlessly oleaginous as a scheming politico, and Fiennes is in spittingly intense form. A committed and worthwhile celluloid version of a play so few of us really know.