The final image in Ralph Fiennes’ fine adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” is riveting — two men in a war-torn landscape locked in a deadly embrace. Their final coupling sums up the passionate love-hate relationship and the series of personal and political betrayals that have led them to this fatal climax.
One of the men is the Roman general Caius Martius (played by director Fiennes) and the other is his sworn enemy, the Volscian leader Tullus Aufidius (played with brooding intensity by Gerard Butler, probably best known to gay audiences as the title character in the movie version of “The Phantom of the Opera” and the buff, scantily clad Spartan general in “300.”) When the movie opens, Martius is at the top of his game. He brutally but effectively suppresses an uprising by the starving plebians and almost single-handedly halts an attack on Rome by the Volscian army. (He is given the honorific Coriolanus to mark his conquest of the Volscian city of Corioles.) The tables turn, however, when his mother and their well-meaning patrician friends try to push the warrior into a political career. The skills that serve him so well on the battlefield (rage, invective, decisive action, foolhardy risk-taking) fail him in the public sphere. The fallen war hero is banished from Rome and joins forces with his former Volscian enemies.
Screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator) does an excellent job of streamlining and updating Shakespeare’s timeless and timely tale. He and Fiennes present the story in a modern-day setting yet retain the richness of Shakespeare’s language, story and characters. The text is tidily trimmed throughout, but the only major excision is the famous fable of the belly, a charming parable used to keep the lower classes in check. Several expository scenes and messenger speeches are transferred with great facility to television anchors and pundits (on the wittily named Fideles TV). Battle scenes were shot in Belgrade and most of the secondary roles are filled by Serbian actors. Cinematographer Barry Atkinson (who worked with Fiennes on the award-winning The Hurt Locker) captures the noise, rage, terror and brutality of contemporary warfare in horribly effective detail. The savage intensity of the battle scenes contrasts nicely with the suave treachery of the political scenes.
Fiennes and Logan also follow Shakespeare in highlighting the homosocial bonds between the politicians and the soldiers and the explicitly homoerotic nature of the relationship between Coriolanus and Aufidius. Soldiers routinely greet each other by declaring they are happier to see their returning colleagues than they ever were to see their wives. Politicians taunt each other with charges of feminine or boyish behavior. Aufidius declares that Coriolanus is his enemy, yet welcomes him gladly to the Volscian camp. Under Fiennes’ assured direction, the two men literally cannot keep their hands off each other, yet they cannot stop battling for dominance. Their smoldering glances burn up the screen and their scary fight scenes only stop when one of the participants loses consciousness.
Fiennes’ focus on the homosocial and misogynistic world of the battlefield and the halls of power (in this case, smoke-filled bars, marble hearing rooms and brightly lit television studios) give a clear context for Vanessa Redgrave’s chilling performance of Coriolanus’ monstrous mother Volumnia, clearly one of the most intelligent people in this Rome, but there she has no effective outlet for her brains or passion. Instead of participating in the great events at the Capitol, she is forced to watch them unfold on TV. Her thwarted ambition is poured into her son, an inadequate vessel for her grand dreams, and the result is tragedy. Redgrave shines in every scene, whether chastising her daughter-in-law for her fears, tenderly dressing her son’s wounds, attacking the opposition or pleading with her son to return to Rome. The picture of Redgrave as Volumnia giddily applauding her warrior son while wearing the same junior military uniform as her young grandson is an unforgettable image of the societal price of sexism.
The rest of the cast is also uniformly strong. Brian Cox (Menenius) and John Kani (Cominius) give nuanced performances as leaders of the patrician party and they are well matched by the oily Tribunes of the People, James Nesbitt (Sicinius) and Paul Jesson (Brutus). Newcomer Jessica Chastain (“The Help”), one of the breakout performers of 2011, makes a surprisingly vivid impression as Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia, who he describes as “my gracious silence.”
For many years, “Coriolanus” was rarely produced, although there has been a resurgence of interest in the play in recent years. Shakespeare’s tricky political tale is very well-served by first-time director Ralph Fiennes (who has played the role onstage). He deserves extra credit for highlighting the homoerotic undertones that many directors shy away from, especially since the end result is a nuanced and fascinating portrayal of thwarted ambition, military bravado and political treachery. This is not a warm and fuzzy film, but it is a compelling and important one.