Review by © Jane Freebury
The man behind the camera on this adaptation of Shakespeare is Barry Ackroyd, the cinematographer who lensed Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker and Paul Greengrass’ United 93 with such a distinctive eye. In each of those films he was able to create a heightened sense of what soldiers feel in the field or what civilians experience trapped in a hijacked plane. In Coriolanus Ackroyd’s hand-held camera aims to give you a similar visceral experience.
A second man behind the camera, the one looking over Ackroyd’s shoulder during the shoot, was Ralph Fiennes who as both director and lead actor managed to be in two places at once. At least the actor knew his lines really well, having been Coriolanus on stage a decade before. He’s had a long time to develop his interpretation of the proud Roman military hero who was brutally dedicated in his campaigns to protect Rome from her enemies — until the city spurned him and he defected to the other side.
In his first gig as a director, Fiennes has made the bold decision to set his film in the Balkans of the 1990s, in ‘a place called Rome’ that happens to be contemporary Belgrade, a victim of years of recent internecine war. So the words of the bard are heard in the midst of graffitied walls, modern warfare and urban squalor. Richard Loncraine’s screen adaptation of Richard III in 1995, locating a royal power struggle within the growth of Nazism in the years leading up to WWII, worked terrifically well, and a boldly re-imagined contemporary context works really well for Coriolanus too. Inevitably, the language loses some of its power, but Fiennes and the other key actors know just how to bring Shakespeare to life for today’s audiences.
It isn’t hard to understand why this has been a pet project for Fiennes, who brings Coriolanus to the screen for the first time ever. Were the war hero a one-dimensional brute, he would not hold our interest, but he is a bundle of contradictions. He chose tender-hearted Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) to be his wife, but appears to be closer to his flint-hearted, war-mongering mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), and he refuses to bow to populism and pretend to be a man of the people. Plain speaking and guileless, he is the man of action not words, who cares not whether the Romans love him or hate him. He can inspire intense loyalty from his troops and his rivals like Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) are jealous of his charisma.
Given all this, Fiennes could have given his character less of the Voldemort and more of the nuance that Redgrave and Butler especially have given theirs. Still, this is bold and compelling and has something to say about society’s ambivalence towards the warrior class.
In a capsule: The first-ever screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s low-profile play is brutal, bloody and boldly located in the late 20th century. The actors know and understand their lines, which have been pared back to allow the action to roll.