"If the wars eat us not up, they will; and there's all the love they bear us."
Can one be a good leader if he feels scorn for those who follow? That is the foundation of Shakespeare's opaque and contradictory but still relevant Coriolanus, and the notion Ralph Fiennes explores in his modern-day big screen adaptation. Pride, fascism, family, ambition, and the fickle nature of public opinion are the Bard's targets, but with less fanfare and emotional lyricism than his more famous works. Fiennes' film takes a more organic approach, integrating its themes into a political drama that slyly comments on modern democracy, nationalism, and class warfare.
It looks like war-torn Afghanistan, Iraq or, perhaps, 1990's Yugoslavia (the film was shot in Serbia), but we're told we're in Rome. Martius Coriolanus (Fiennes) is a hyper-masculine war hero celebrated for his defeat of the threatening Volscian army, led by Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). An arrogant-yet-honest brute (and, because of his privileged upbringing, a bit of a snob), Coriolanus is uncomfortable with praise or posturing. Still, he is persuaded to run for civilian office as a consul, which ends up revealing his contempt for the commoners he would supposedly serve. This opens the door for a pair of scheming politicians, Sicinius (James Nesbitt) and Brutus (Paul Jesson), who inflame the public by making an issue of his arrogance, and arranging his banishment. To say Coriolanus is enraged by his exile from home and the family he deeply loves is an understatement. With revenge in mind, he offers his sword to Rome's nemesis, Tullus, and the leads an assault on his homeland.
Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan (Hugo, Gladiator), do an exceptional job of paring down Shakespeare's second-longest play into an action-packed if dramatically bleak two hours. Mixing iambic pentameter with modern sensibilities, they convincingly transport their tale to our 24-hour-news-cycle world. Using CNN-style updates and pundit talk-show chatter to communicate the play's numerous conversations, the story energetically buzzes along. Similarly, the battle scenes, of which there are many, are shot in the frantic hand-held style that the Bourne films have made de rigueur. Fienne's direction is a little less successful here, mistaking vérité affectation for cinematic coherence — we're not always sure who is shooting or stabbing who. Nonetheless, the overall effect is effectively tense and violent.
Unsurprisingly, where Coriolanus shines brightest is with its superb cast. Brian Cox is tragically soulful as Menenius, the trusted friend who is convinced of Martius' leadership potential, and Gerard Butler delivers what is probably the best performance of his career. Vanessa Redgrave can only be described as towering as Coriolanus' tyrannical and ruthless mother, Volumnia, a woman who both commands and, ultimately, destroys her son.
But, in the end, Coriolanus is Fiennes' show. Bald-headed, streaked with blood and sweat, covered in dust, he has the ferocious dead-eyed stare of a predator who strikes fear into everyone except mommy dearest. Unlike Shakespeare's other tragic heroes, Martius is neither conflicted nor self-doubting. He is perfectly suited for the battlefield but completely unprepared for public scrutiny, backroom deal-making and false rhetoric. Expertly balancing his performance between quiet regret, self-destructive arrogance and howling stubbornness, Fiennes takes center stage without making the role a vanity project. He fearlessly inhabits Coriolanus' psyche, making believable both his weaknesses and virtues, a character who unrepentantly seals his fate with the venomous spit of "Boy!" yet makes us understand all too-well how even the fiercest warriors can be undone by the insidious manipulations of savvy politicians.
In this age of perpetual conflict, Arab Spring, and global unrest, Coriolanus is a reminder that those who wage war and those who benefit from it are not necessarily the same, and both should be regarded with suspicion.