Star rating – 8/10
Ralph Fiennes has produced an impressive and very contemporary version of the seldom performed Shakespearean drama Coriolanus, in which he both stars in the title role, and directs. I am a big fan of updating the bard with modern settings, this time in the middle of the 1990’s Balkan conflict, yet keeping the original lyrical words intact. My favourite example of this has to be Baz Luhrmann’s wonderful ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with Mr. DiCaprio in 1996.
Fiennes seems perfect for the role of the famous and victorious Roman general Caius Martius, who leads a celebrated early victory in the city of Corioles against those pesky old Roman enemies, the Volscians. On his return he is given the title Coriolanus in honour of the victory, and is encouraged by his adoring and commanding mother to swap his army fatigues for the robes of a politician. But the power games and spin of this world do not rest easy with his more straight forward soldierly character, and he is very ill suited to the skills of diplomacy and democratic niceties.
Gerard Butler is superb as his powerful and handsome nemesis, the commander of the Volscian army, Tullus Aufidius, who is loved by his own people in a way that Coriolanus could never be. You could say the two men have a love hate relationship, having battled it out on many previous occasions with no-one emerging victorious, and their relationship is verging on homoerotic at one point. And Vanessa Redgrave as his domineering mother was born to recite Shakespeare, making the words she utters seem like everyday conversation with her immense grasp of their power and nuance. She shows here again what a phenomenal actor she is.
I can see though, why this is not one of Shakespeare’s more popular plays – it is very wordy, with no great consistency of hero to worship like Henry V or villain to despise like Richard III. There are only shades of grey as Coriolanus goes from hero to villain to anti hero to tortured soul. He is pushed on relentlessly by his adoring mother to enter the world of politics, but the soldier in him cannot cope with the flattery and fawning that must accompany it. He is not prepared to compromise his principles for the love of the people – unlike many of today’s toadying breed of public figures and politicians. In some ways this is a refreshing stance (are you listening Nick Clegg?) but obviously ultimately a very flawed one for the pursuit of power.
The Balkan comparison makes real sense, and there are also very real parallels with the Arab Spring, and the angry, hungry mob which features in the plays opening scenes. There is a clever use of rolling news channel newsflashes, and Jon Snow reading breaking news to explain the developing plot did not feel out of place. And although the dialogue is dense in places, Fiennes makes it relatively easy to follow.
Now for a bit of a moan – Coriolanus was not showing at my local friendly neighbourhood multiplex and was only on a very small screen at the art house Cornerhouse cinema, and with limited screenings. So I had to frequent a multiplex in the city centre – can you believe it? Should it really be so hard to watch an intelligent, well acted, relevant Shakespearean drama? The answer of course is no. But catch it if you can – if only when it comes out on DVD!