It’s difficult, unfortunately, to sit through the first twenty minutes of Ralph Fiennes’ modern rendering of Coriolanus without distraction. And these distractions do rather shake the whole project. The first distraction is that the shaven headed Fiennes’ looks uncomfortably like his recent portrayal of Voldemort in the Harry Potter films; a look that tends to be reinforced when Coriolanus loses his rag, which he does quite often! The second distraction is that the early battle scenes bear more than a passing resemblance to scenes out of the urban recreations in the video game, Call of Duty. This resemblance is particularly true in a scene in which Fiennes’ Caius Martius goes through a burnt-out house, single-handedly taking out the enemy; a shoot-em-up in blank verse. I kept expecting Fiennes to slump in front of the camera and the second clock to tick round while he ‘respawned’, or resuscitated! Perhaps Fiennes also has a teenage son, or perhaps, more cynically, Fiennes hopes the DVD will appeal to sixth-forms!
But as distancing as those distractions are, the film as a whole does reach into the heart of Shakespeare’s Roman play. If Coriolanus isn’t one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ plays, there is a problem in that the central character can seem only self-obsessed and totally at the mercy of his warped drive-to-war. Fiennes’ doesn’t avoid that problem but one effect of his updating of the play to a contemporary Balkans is to show how such warping can be part of political culture. So, such distortion of the personality is some how more ‘understandable’. The other problem with Coriolanus is his utter loathing for the ‘prols’! On stage, that loathing is slightly dispersed amidst the whole texture of character. Here such loathing is rather sprung on us as the political machinations of the Roman Senate both pluck Caius Martius out as Consul and rename him ‘Coriolanus’, for his victory over the Corioles.
At the same time, Fiennes and his screen-writer, John Logan, have pared back to a real essence. And this essence is brought alive by wonderful acting, in particular Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia, who is both the mother and mother-in-law from hell, but moves through the film into a central, political role. Brian Cox is wonderful as the increasingly rejected mentor Menenius, and Jessica Chastain, as Coriolanus’ wife, Virgilia also shows that she is well able to deal with verse speaking. Gerard Butler is a little side-lined as Coriolanus’ initial arch-enemy, Tullus Aufidius, until a slightly clunky homo-eroticism follows Coriolanus’ desertion of Rome for the enemy.
In general, Fiennes’ up-dating works beautifully; the filming in the Bosnian parliament building, a check-point on some out-of-the-way motorway deep in Eastern Europe, Fiennes’ journey into the ‘world elsewhere’ that is his exile is lovingly filmed. The only real oddity is John Snow’s appearance in a Roman Channel Four News!