Following in the footsteps of some of Britain’s greatest actors (Olivier, Branagh), Ralph Fiennes takes on the dual roles of star and director of a Shakespeare play. The result is meaty and visceral but lacks that certain spark that transforms the merely good into the magnificent.
Fiennes has chosen to relocate this tale of over-weaning pride and hubris from the Roman Empire to an unspecified and fiercely tribal Balkan territory (the film was actually shot in Serbia and Montenegro). This certainly gives it a modern edge and having his actors stride around in combat gear wielding heavy weaponry underlines the brutality and violence of the piece with some ruggedly shot battle scenes.
Fiennes plays Coriolanus, the exalted soldier from a long line of military heroes who returns home to his devoted wife (Jessica Chastain) and autocratic mother (an excellent Vanessa Redgrave) victorious after defeating his sworn enemy Tullus (Gerard Butler). What Coriolanus now plans to do, with the advice of his mentor Menenius (Brian Cox), is translate his military success into political clout and be elected to the ruling elite. But to do so he needs the backing of the common people and he is not popular as they sense his contempt for them, and distrust his arrogance. With his political hopes dashed and his pride piqued he conceives a plan so treacherous even his own family are forced to beg him to reconsider, but he has convinced himself his actions are justified thus setting himself on a suicidal course.
There are some stand out performances here including Redgrave whose Volumnia really is a monster of a mother; Butler as Tullus the worthy opponent who knows he can never beat Coriolanus by conventional means; and Cox who is so laidback and reasonable as Menenius he throws Coriolanus’s intractability into sharp contrast.
However, the weak link here is Fiennes himself who snarls and spits and rages but never towers over the production as Coriolanus really should. His anger seems merely churlish childishness whereas it should be a dark whirlpool of deep-seated ire that cannot be assuaged. It doesn’t help that with his shaven head he looks exactly like Voldermort but without the wand.
Those who don’t know the play may find its central premise a little hard to swallow and Fiennes’ inability to encapsulate Coriolanus’s noble inner-warrior makes his character too one-sided to be credible.