Trying to make a movie out of one of William Shakespeare's famous plays is sort of like trying to do a cover of one of the Rolling Stones' most popular songs. Sure, it's tempting, but you're competing against all the other versions out there already -- and you're just opening yourself up to criticism about how your rendition wasn't nearly as good as so-and-so's. Filmmakers want to put their stamp on the Bard, but there are so many stamps all over "Romeo and Juliet," "Hamlet" and "Macbeth" already, so how can you do something new?
Maybe that's one of the reasons I responded to actor Ralph Fiennes' "Coriolanus" so strongly. It's a Shakespeare play that's not quite in the pantheon, but it's still very good. This gives Fiennes plenty of room to explore the work and modernize it, providing it with a vitality I haven't seen in a Shakespeare film in a while. And in the title role, Fiennes is simply a monster.
"Coriolanus" tells the tragic tale of Caius Martius (Fiennes), a bloodthirsty, ferocious general for Rome. Though the play was set around the fifth century BC, Fiennes' film takes place in modern-day Europe, although all the original place names remain the same -- not to mention the Shakespearean language. Martius has just defeated Rome's greatest enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), and so it seems natural that he'll become the city's grand Consul, receiving the honorary name of Coriolanus in the process. Unfortunately for the curt, unpleasant warrior, politics require him to seek the favor of the people, whom he feels are beneath him. That begins his downfall -- and his exodus from the city he swore to protect.
Fiennes, who won a Tony for his performance as Hamlet, has played Coriolanus on stage, and for his feature directing debut he was wise to cast himself in the lead. Occasionally incorporating the icy menace and dead eyes that he used to such good affect as Lord Voldemort in the "Harry Potter" films, Fiennes makes Coriolanus a charmless yet utterly gripping force. In the film's early stretches that are flush with battle scenes in demolished cities, the character seems both stripped clean of his humanity but also disturbingly alive. "Coriolanus" was shot by "Hurt Locker" cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, and like that war film (which featured Fiennes in a small role) this drama has a jittery, documentary-like urgency that never feels artificially chaotic or "authentic."
The thrill and horror of the film's early stretches are crucial for what comes next, which is the cold tedium of Rome's news programs and government buildings as Coriolanus tries to navigate through a world he barely understands -- or really respects. When done right, "Coriolanus" is a play in which you understand the character's contempt for the "common people" while at the same time seeing what a hopeless cretin he really is. Fiennes' movie isn't a perfect balance of those two sentiments -- the first and third acts (where Coriolanus is more in his element) are the strongest sections -- but he does an excellent job turning a mostly inexpressive (by Shakespeare's standards) protagonist into an immediate and weirdly moving figure.
Fiennes has surrounded himself with a starry supporting cast, and for the most part they handle the Shakespearean language superbly. Brian Cox and Vanessa Redgrave (as Coriolanus' aide and mother, respectively) are effortless, and while Butler and Jessica Chastain (as Coriolanus' wife) don't seem quite as comfortable there's not one performance that's less than solid. But the film belongs to its star. While watching "Coriolanus," I was struck by how much Coriolanus is really a metaphor for all the talented people in our world who are incredibly gifted in one regard yet terribly inadequate in all others. My mind drifted to the brilliant artists who can't cope in conventional society and the astounding athletes who have struggled once their career ended. And then I thought of Robert De Niro's performance in "Raging Bull." The tragedy of Jake LaMotta was that all the anger and jealousy that came from his life fueled his boxing, but it couldn't do anything to make his life any better. Fiennes seems to be channeling some of De Niro's impotent rage in "Coriolanus." This is a character who is happiest when his enemies' blood is smeared across his face. His nightmare is that, eventually, there won't be any more blood to shed.