But what Ralph Fiennes really wants to do is direct. The Oscar nominated thesp makes his directorial debut with a modern retelling of William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, featuring much of the Bard’s original prose intact. It must be a passion project because a) there is a real ferocity to the storytelling, and b) I cannot imagine this being atop anyone’s ‘to do’ list, and would have likely never seen the light of day unless there was a producer seriously pushing for it. The resulting product is a bit of a feathered fish, but it’s a unique cinematic experience with a superb cast, so what more can we really ask for?
Though the world of Coriolanus looks and feels like ours, it actually takes place in a parallel universe where Rome is at war with the Volscian army. Roman general Caius Martius (Fiennes) cares not for the starving people of his city; only his own honour and his vendetta against Volscian leader Aufidius (Gerard Butler). When he returns from a fairly spectacular battle a conquering hero, senator Menenius (Brian Cox) suggests Martius join Roman consul. First though, he’ll have to adjust his brusque manner and ask for the blessing of his countrymen. The wishy-washy residents of Rome turn out to be easily won over, one minute baying for his blood and the next shrugging and saying he’s not really all that bad. Tribunes Sicinius (James Nesbitt) and Brutus (Paul Jesson) turn them against him once more (they are very easily swayed), and eventually Martius – or as he’s newly christened, Coriolanus – is banished from his home. They will regret crossing him. He heads over the border, and teams up with Aufidius, to claim his revenge. As Menenius says, ‘Coriolanus has grown from man to dragon’.
Fiennes is fine – not intended as a pun, I swear – in the lead; he clearly understands the material, but occasionally reverts to Voldemortian hissing. Cox fares much better, but this will be no surprise to anyone who has ever seen Brian Cox in a film. Vanessa Redgrave, as Martius’ mother Volumnia, and the freakishly prolific Jessica Chastain, as his wife Virgilia, impress above all. Redgrave is no stranger to this language, and she delivers it with astounding intensity.
There’s no question as to why Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan have updated Billy Shakespeare’s tale. You need only look to Australia’s own spill/respill saga (which, in actuality, ended up being even bloodier) for a modern comparison. The genius of William’s work has been proven over the past five centuries, as his depictions of historical political controversies (as well as his invented ones) still stand as biting, relevant satires of the world today. George Clooney‘s The Ides of March and television show Homeland are effective, entertaining commentaries on recent scandals and the current cultural environment, and Coriolanus feels just as timely. And though I understand why they dare not tamper with Shakespeare’s brilliant lines (“You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate” – disses don’t get much better), it feels more and more like an unnatural gimmick when contrasted with the contemporary setting.
Coriolanus arrives in Australian cinemas March 8, 2012.