A version of this review appeared in The Age, March 10, 2012.
It is odd to remember there was a time when Ralph Fiennes was bent on becoming a Major Movie Star, striking poses in a bowler hat in The Avengers, or flirting awkwardly with Jennifer Lopez in Maid in Manhattan. Fiennes is superb at conveying rage and bewilderment, but conspicuously lacks any kind of easy charm or willingness to meet an audience halfway. This may account for some of his interest in Shakespeare's most forbidding tragic hero, Caius Martius, otherwise known as Coriolanus: a role he has played with success on stage and now reprises in his first film as director.
As imagined by Shakespeare, a larger-than-life warrior like Martius seems archaic even in ancient Rome, which paradoxically may account for his continuing appeal. To a modern audience, his frank contempt for the mob, expressed in vividly brutal tirades, has the thrill of blasphemy.
Still, Fiennes and his screenwriter John Logan are keen to remind us that this isn't really a story about the ancient world. The action unfolds in a abstracted present-day setting, with Martius and his men darting around “a place that calls itself Rome” – an imaginary war-torn city pieced together from mainly Eastern European locations – dodging explosions and gunfire in hectic sequences designed to recall TV news bulletins or The Hurt Locker. The updating is ingenious if sometimes a bit too cute: much of the exposition is delivered by newsreaders, and Martius' political prospects are assessed at one point by pundits on a panel show. There are also some unexpected moments of lyricism: a dreamy, wordless scene of soldiers dancing around a campfire could almost be an outtake from a film by Claire Denis.
But most of the time the performances are the thing, though Fiennes understands how to use framing to maximise his physical presence. As often as possible he films himself in close-up, typically from a slight low angle, as if the camera too were cowering at his scarred, shaven head, staring blue eyes, and permanent sneer.
Martius might easily be played as a swaggering brute, but Fiennes allows us to see the uncomprehending pain behind his disgust with most of humanity. There's a bit of Frankenstein's monster in the character, as there is in Clint Eastwood's version of J. Edgar Hoover, another punitive misfit with a hidden sensitive side. In a way, he's the dupe of a society which relies on his capacity for violence yet refuses to accept the consequences; having absorbed the martial virtues literally at his mother's knee, he turns out to be the only soldier in Rome fool enough to take them at face value.
Still, the film is far from being a one-man show. There are finely judged contributions from Jessica Chastain as Martius' wife, Brian Cox as his closest friend, and Gerard Butler as his oddly affectionate arch-enemy. Above all, there's Vanessa Redgrave as his mother Volumnia, her son's match in almost every sense; the film would be worth seeing just for this grand yet very "real" performance, with all its shading of tenderness and grief and willed decorum around an implacable core.
It helps that Logan is one of the few modern Hollywood screenwriters to take pleasure in language for its own sake, as his recent scripts for Rango and Hugo demonstrate. Though the Shakespearian text has been drastically trimmed, he has a reliable ear for which lines are too good to lose – as when Martius tells a group of protesters “Get you home, you fragments!” or when Volumnia boasts of her son's wounds that “Every gash was an enemy's grave.”
Part of the genius of the play is the way it builds in multiple interpretations of the central figure, giving directors and actors scope to find their own path through the text. “This Coriolanus has grown from man to dragon,” says Cox's character towards the end – though a couple of scenes earlier a messenger has described the transformed Martius as “a kind of nothing.” The great thing is that Fiennes is up to the challenge of suggesting how both statements might be true.