Fair bursting at the seams with classical pomp and thespian grandeur, Coriolanus is actor Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut; an ambitious yet ultimately fatally flawed adaptation of William Shakespeare’s tragedy updated to take place in modern day Rome.
Adapted by John Logan (Gladiator, Sweeney Todd) who has opted (to rather distracting effect) to retain Shakespeare’s original dialogue, Coriolanus is the tale of the titular soldier (Fiennes) whose extreme views and incendiary manner ignite a mass riot and much political discord. Eventually banished from Rome and alienated from his family, the proud, troubled Coriolanus offers his life or his services to his mortal enemy Aufidius, played by a brooding Gerard Butler.
Shot on location in Serbia, Coriolanus is a handsomely mounted production featuring competently directed action sequences and an appropriately drab, gritty visual palette which makes strong use of earthy, dusty greys and steely blues. Despite its stately qualities, it never manages to attain the raw, visceral power and kinetic energy of the likes of Alfonso Cuaron’s dystopian tale of warfare Children Of Men, a film which it clearly aspires to echo on an aesthetic level and in terms of creating a desolate, war-torn hyperreality.
Furthermore, Coriolanus suffers badly from a tentative attempt at a contemporary makeover. Nobody is asking for a subplot about the integration of Facebook and Spotify, but Fiennes’ film languishes in a semi-realised halfway house between the past and the present, with no real effort to connect the text to modern topical themes, or build an individualised, stylised world of its own. For example, Channel 4‘s Jon Snow has an amusing cameo as a newscaster (for the omnipresent, fictional Fidelis TV network) but there is no attempt to make a point about the role of the media or, say, 24-hour news reporting in our oversaturated era. Though not to everybody’s tastes, Baz Luhrmann’s gaudily energetic 1996 adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, by way of comparison, was brazenly, unashamedly confident in its own style and expressive use of costume and dialect to appeal to a new audience.
Despite the topical fudge, Shakespeare’s story is typically thematically meaty, thus Coriolanus hinges on its central performance for impact. Sadly, Fiennes, with his square jaw, flinty blue eyes and oddly nasal bark, fails to bring anywhere near enough dimension to the role to make an eminently dislikable character (Coriolanus openly despises “the poor”, who are rendered en bloc, often seen hanging around Eastenders-esque market stalls and such) a compellingly conflicted anti-hero. Although he has has little to work with - Coriolanus is no King Lear or Henry IV - Fiennes only really manages to convince as a petulant brat. As a director, he also seems to have acquired a nasty habit of making absolutely everything else grind to a halt when he is speaking, lending further weight to the creeping feeling that this is all a rather weighty vanity project.
The remainder of the cast provide variable support. TV’s James Nesbitt gives decent smug as an opposing politician, whilst the eminently dependable Brian Cox as the loyal Menenius flashes alternately lugubrious and menacing. Cox, you suspect, would bring the same gravitas as a contestant on Deal or No Deal, and his performance is dangerously close to being by-the-numbers. As Coriolanus’ put-upon wife, Jessica Chastain (excellent in the recent-ish Take Shelter), has both a wobbly accent and little to do. The pick of the bunch is Vanessa Redgrave, who delivers a stunning, Oscar-worthy turn as Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia, replete with grit, determination and sensitivity. She is, if anything, a little too good, upstaging Fiennes and the majority of the rest of the cast; it’s a bit like Jimi Hendrix turning up to play with The Twang. Gerard Butler as Aufidius, ostensibly Fiennes’ co-lead, is a convincing physical presence but spends far too much time leaning around coyly as though he’s auditioning for the role of Marti Pellow in a Wet Wet Wet biopic.
Ultimately, Fiennes’ Coriolanus, for all its scale and epic ambition, is an inessential affair; watchable and competent yet curiously stolid and dull. It’s simply not resonant in the way that the best Shakespeare adaptations are.