Coriolanus is Fiennes’ debut as a director and his adaptation of Shakespeare’s play is impressive. The story concerns a 5th century Roman general, Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, who earns renown for his victories over Roman’s enemies, the Volsci.
Coriolanus is encouraged to run for consul, but his extraordinary pride and inflexibility alienates the common people, whose nominal support Coriolanus needs to win office. Coriolanus is branded a traitor and expelled from Roman instead, at which point he offers his services to the Volscian general he previously defeated and leads the Volscian army’s attack on Rome.
Fiennes places his Coriolanus in a modern, unidentified European country that feels like the former Yugoslavia in which much of the film was shot, and creates a compelling portrait of a militaristic nation with weak democratic institutions threatened by both internal and external strife.
Viewers are likely to recognize the influence of such filmmakers as Paul Greenglass and Kathryn Bigelow on Fiennes’ direction, but his mastery of their techniques is so complete and so visceral that I can give him nothing but credit for his success.
Fiennes gets strong performances from all his cast, including Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, and especially Vanessa Redgrave, who delivers a knock-out performance as Coriolanus’ she-wolf of a mother. For good measure, Fiennes gives a harrowing, malignant performance himself as Coriolanus.
My only quibbles with Coriolanus derive from the source play, not Fiennes’ work, and even these quibbles arise from Shakespeare falling short of his best work rather than some intrinsic flaw.
Shakespeare’s poetry in Coriolanus is quite strong and his plot construction better than usual. What’s lacking is the signature “inwardness” of his best characters (to use Harold Bloom’s apt word) and these characters’ ability to change.
Coriolanus never “overhears himself talking to himself” (Bloom again) and certainly does not change. That Coriolanus is utterly inflexible and lacks self-awareness are the drivers of his tragedy, and so perhaps necessary to the play. But this means the work does not quite achieve Shakespearean greatness.
Still, that leaves us with a play very good indeed, and one to which Fiennes in this film does full justice.