Ralph Fiennes makes his directorial debut with “Coriolanus” which is based on William Shakespeare’s tragedy of the same name. He also stars as Caius Martius, a Roman general who is both revered and feared, and at odds with his fellow citizens. Fiennes certainly picked a most challenging project for his first film as director, but having done many Shakespeare plays onstage, he has a mastery of the bard’s infinitely passionate dialogue.
The action has been moved to present day where parallels to Occupy Wall Street and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can be seen. Caius has more than proven himself in combat, but the townspeople despise him for taking their food away. When he is pushed by his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) to seek the powerful position of Consul, fellow politicians scheme against him and get the town to expel him for good. This forces Caius to join forces with his blood enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) in battling the Romans and seeking vengeance against those who betrayed his trust.
“Coriolanus” is one of those Shakespeare plays you could do an entire thesis on as it covers many thematic elements. Be it the power of the people, the corruption of politics, the selfish desires of others, or looking at what war does to some, you could spend hours discussing all that goes on here.
Fiennes gives a powerful performance as Caius, and certain scenes will enthrall the audience to where you can hear a pin drop in the movie theatre. While the townspeople’s anger at him is justified, Fiennes makes Caius seem like a war veteran who has done his patriotic duty only to be spat upon by the people he has defended. This is not some power hungry villain at play here but a man who feels he deserves more respect than he has been given. His flaw however is that he is incapable of respecting those he has spent time defending.
As a director, Fiennes employs the same kind of shaky camerawork Kathryn Bigelow used to great effect in “The Hurt Locker” (which he made a cameo in). The bullets fly all over the place, and they sound like steel swords clashing with rage. He also gets the actors to speak the Shakespearean language in a natural tone while giving those with bigger parts a chance to show off their amazing theatricality. The tone is a bit jarring at first, but everything comes together as the movie goes on.
Fiennes is also backed up immeasurably by an impeccable cast. Gerard Butler easily gives his best performance since “300” as Tullus whose anger at Caius equals his passion for his people. Jessica Chastain, who has appeared in every other 2011 movie, is a strong presence as Caius’ wife Virgilia. But the movie’s best performance comes from Redgrave who is a powerhouse as Caius’ mother. She captures her character’s controlling and manipulative nature to where she doesn’t just bring her son to his knees but the audience’s as well.
“Coriolanus” does meander a bit and threatens to bite off more than it can chew, but it is a powerful experience nonetheless. Kudos to Fiennes who picked quite the project to mark his directorial debut with as any lesser director would have easily failed in adapting such complex material. Some would have started with something easier, but not the man who played Lord Voldemort!
* * * ½ out of * * * *
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