Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox
Directed by: Ralph Fiennes (debut)
Written by: John Logan (“The Aviator”)
Social and economic inequality set the cinematic stage in “Coriolanus,” a highly-inspired adaptation of William Shakespeare’s early 17th century play, which, in many ways, parallels the protest movement against governmental power tripping that began in New York City late last year and has since spread across the U.S. While some literary pundits would call the original text one of the more minor tragedies written by Shakespeare (or whomever, for all you Anti-Stratfordians), first-time director and two-time Academy Award-nominated actor Ralph Fiennes (“Schindler’s List”) builds a fascinating modern-day narrative on familiar themes including political corruption and blood-lusting revenge and drills it straight into a belief system that rebellion is the only way to save a threatened democracy. It’s a stark depiction of war and societal oppression complemented by a frighteningly intense performance by Fiennes as the title tragic character who gives Coriolanus its impressive scowl.
When scarred and stern-faced Caius Martius Coriolanus (Fiennes) steps out from behind a line of shielded soldiers and toward a riotous mob that is demanding the government provide them food, the seething look he gives them only hints at the depth of the the Roman general’s loathing (though he’ll soon be seeking support from those same detractors during his transition from despised war hero to demeaning political figure). His hatred, however, is mostly concentrated toward the Volscian army and his sworn enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), who he later joins forces with to get revenge on Rome when its citizens banish him from the impoverished city.
As Coriolanus’ prideful mother Volumnia, Oscar winner Vanessa Redgrave (“Julia”) is a standout, as is Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain (“The Help”) in a smaller yet significant role as his concerned wife Virgilia, and Brian Cox (“Red”) as Senator Menenius, an ally who keeps the pendulum swinging steadily in Rome before Coriolanus shoves it over violently. It’s Fiennes, however, as both the visionary debuting filmmaker and lead that deserves the most credit for taking Shakespeare’s distinct language and allowing it to flourish in a contemporary setting and from the tongues of proven actors. While the decision to stay committed to the original text might turn away some viewers who would’ve rather seen “Coriolanus” set in a high school starring Zac Efron, perhaps, purists can take solace in the fact that Fiennes’ ambitious interpretation of Shakespeare’s work is well executed and unsettlingly relevant even after four centuries.