Shakespeare is given the modern-warfare treatment in Coriolanus, an adaptation of the Bard’s tragedy directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes that contemporizes via Paul Greengrass-esque faux-doc aesthetics. That style, in which frantic handheld camerawork and rapid-fire cuts attempt to approximate a nonfiction battlefield feel, is a counterfeit one that merely feigns vérité grit, substituting compositional and rhythmic coherence in favor of in-the-moment energy. Its utilization here does little to enhance or complicate Shakespeare’s oft-undervalued work, affording the material—which takes place in a here-and-now era of street-to-street skirmishes, IEDs, and current military tech and uniforms—a second-rate Green Zone patina. It’s a misstep made all the more glaring by the fact that, when he and DP Barry Ackroyd bolt their camera into one position and allow the cast’s speeches to resound uninterrupted by cinematographic or editorial spasms, Fiennes’s film takes on a formal regality in line with his story. That tale focuses on the downfall of mighty Roman general Martius (Fiennes), a warrior whose scars prove his allegiance to his nation—ultimately netting him the titular moniker for his conquest of Corioles city—and yet whose disdain for the commoners whom he serves sets him upon his doomed course.
After another victorious campaign against the neighboring Volscian army, and faced with growing popular unrest at home driven by calamitous food shortages, Martius seems destined to be elevated to consulship, a post against which the bald, severe general bristles. Too embarrassed to listen to a recitation of his accolades, but also awash in contempt for the lowly masses he views as beneath him (a conviction that echoed Shakespeare’s own distrust of democratic rule), Martius explodes in a torrent of anti-commoner rage, an outburst that his trusted political friend Menenius (Brian Cox), devoted wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain), and influential mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) can’t stifle. Writer John Logan dramatizes with a fidelity to the Bard’s prose that’s rigorous without being unyielding, and though there are moments in which modern colloquial phrases stick out like sore thumbs, his script generally blends iambic pentameter smoothly into the plot’s present-day setting. To that end, he’s aided immensely by the enduring, vital themes of Coriolanus, which, despite its ho-hum TV news footage of rioters and tanks rolling through bombed-out streets, confronts issues of class, duty, valor, and civilian-military relations and dynamics—specifically, the means by which citizens judge and are indebted to soldiers, and vice versa—with a sobriety and maturity that remains invigorating.
Though his film’s feel is pure Iraq and Afghanistan, Fiennes doesn’t push those parallels unduly, and his central performances prove clear, nuanced, and incisive. As the Volscian leader Aufidius, Butler looks the part more than he sounds it, and as Martius’s wife, Chastain can’t quite make her dialogue roll off the tongue as naturally as she wants. Yet Cox is a soulful Menenius, convinced of Martius’s worth even in the face of those politicians who seek to decry him as a would-be tyrant, and heartbroken and desperate upon having to beseech Martius for mercy after the general, banished from his homeland for his virulent scorn for the masses, aligns with Aufidius in a mission of revenge against Rome. Ultimately, though, Coriolanus is a two-actor showcase. As Volumnia, Redgrave is titanic, exuding a conflagration of sanity, scheming, duplicity, and loyalty, never more forcefully than in a scene in which she futilely pleads with Martius to quell his angry rhetoric and speak the placating platitudes that will guarantee his consulship post. Her fervent passion is matched by Fiennes, who whether spitting fury at the plebeians who would condemn him, or coldly refusing to grant his former compatriots mercy, radiates supercilious zeal with fiery intensity, culminating with a death-courting screed against Aufidius in which “Boy!” becomes an epithet of self-destructive arrogance.