This adaptation of Shakespeare’s play has long been a passion project for Ralph Fiennes. Taking the director’s chair for the first time, he’s worked with writer John Logan (Gladiator) to bring a contemporary version of one of The Bard’s lesser known works to the screen.
Roman general Caius Martius (Fiennes) is respected, feared, and reviled in equal measure. After vanquishing his mortal enemy Tullus Aufidius’s (Gerard Butler) troops, he is named Coriolanus and declared Consul of Rome. But when the people turn against him and banish him from the land, the enemy of his enemy becomes his friend.
This is a big film for Fiennes in every sense of the word. He’s directing and taking the lead role in an update filmed on location in Bosnia that requires him to run through warzones firing rifles, have knife fights, and be so violently angry it takes four men to hold him back. At one point he even grows a beard and hoofs it on the road. Big is the word here. Hand-held cameras are used to get as close to the actors’ faces as humanly possible. Presumably this is an exaggerated way to reduce the assumed distance that a stage play would incur. But when this is matched with performances so...well, theatrical that they threaten to break through the screen, the film becomes insufferable and the modern Balkan setting works only intermittently.
Fiennes’s Coriolanus is a splenetic ball of barely contained rage and revulsion. Brought up by his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) to believe in death before dishonour, he’s at home on the battlefield but doesn’t know what to do when he gets back to his family. These scenes are some of the film’s best, as he barely acknowledges his wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) and his young son, retreating to the bathroom with his mother to bandage his wounds. This is partly due to the stunning performance from Redgrave, but it’s also due to the fact that the rest of the film is so deafeningly loud and over the top that when things go quiet we pay attention. This happens rarely.
Butler goes for ever-so-slightly gruffer and quieter than Fiennes as Aufidius, while Brian Cox, James Nesbitt, and Paul Jesson connive and spin as the manipulative politicians. While they might not all be shouting all the time none of the cast can be accused of underplaying their roles; they not only chew the scenery, they eat its bleeding heart. The exception is Chastain, though that might be because she doesn’t have much of a character anyway.
While Coriolanus is mostly a disappointment, the scenes between Coriolanus and Volumnia deserve praise. She’s thrilled by his victories on the battlefield, wanting him home wounded enough to show the scale of his endeavours but not so wounded as to be unable to accept his honours. Fiennes is at his best in these scenes, cowed by the sheer will of his mother, but it’s Redgrave who walks away with the film.
The cinematography and the performances (particularly Fiennes’s) are kept at such a state of juddering intensity that Coriolanus grows repetitive. Ultimately it’s overblown and misjudged.