War hero general Caius Martius Coriolanus (Fiennes) is poised to become leader of the republic, but political opponents orchestrate his downfall and banishment. Exiled, the bitter warrior forms an alliance with former enemy Aufidius (Butler) and returns home at the head of an invading army.
Ralph Fiennes is on firm footing with Shakespeare’s great political thriller, having given a mesmerising theatre run as the saviour of a nation brought low by hubris. It’s a brave and interesting choice for his directorial debut, though, since it is that tricky proposition, a less widely known Shakespearean work that cognoscenti admire but rarely love. Tragic Corrie, who is very gung ho about honour, duty and courage but is arrogant, unbending and doesn’t connect with the common people, doesn’t click like, say, the rabble-rousing Henry V, wittily wicked Richard III, haunted, soul-searching Hamlet or those beautiful star-crossed children, Romeo and Juliet.
This is the most political of all Shakespeare’s work and yet again one is thunderstruck at how timeless is a 400 year-old play, how recognisable the thoughts, desires, deeds and flaws of its characters. Like the English teacher said in 10 Things I Hate About You: “For a dead, white dude, Shakespeare knew his shit.” Fiennes makes the contemporary resonance crystal clear, with modern dress, a war zone that looks like the Balkans, and fun touches like an iambic pentameter-spouting TV newsreader (Jon Snow!). The visceral combat sequences would sit well in an action flick. Wearing suits rather than togas, one cannot fail to grasp that the conspirators are the conniving bastards, self-serving opportunists and well-intentioned, toothless public servants we know too well. The citizens of Rome who take to the streets, hungry and mad as hell, look just like protestors clashing with authorities on tonight’s news. Most pointedly, the extremism at two uncompromising ends of the political spectrum is shown for ruinous folly.
Vanessa Redgrave relishes a fiery matriarch in Coriolanus’ autocratic mum Volumnia, an aristocratic and military wife and mother who has done the State some service and makes sure they know it. Jessica Chastain is very good if marginal as Coriolanus’ despairing wife Virgilia. Brian Cox, as his manipulative mentor, and James Nesbitt, among the populists aligned against the potential dictator, also acquit themselves well, but bearded, muscle-rippling Gerard Butler is especially effective as the “savage” tribal leader to be reckoned with, Aufidius. Given a protagonist who is humourless, snobby and arguably deranged, Fiennes gives riveting life to the pride, lofty ambition and resentment of a man of valour with no place in peace time.
Exciting, ironic, with assured direction, accomplished performances and the tension of topical themes, this is Shakespeare as relevant as you like it.