“Oh yes, he is wounded,” the war hero’s mother exults at the news her son is returning home. “I thank the gods for it!”
Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave, fierce and feral) proceeds to list her offspring’s many cuts and injuries gained in battle. She keeps track of Martius’s wounds, because she is sure they will bring him glory and power.
But in “Coriolanus,” power and popularity are fleeting things. And nobody knows this more than that anti-heroic hero, Martius. Even after the Senate has offered him the consulship, he resists the need to curry favor with the masses, whom he holds in contempt. Honored and flush with new victory, he knows that mob has hated him in the past and will again, soon enough.
One of Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays is given a vigorous and stingingly contemporary updating as Ralph Fiennes explores the tragedy of pride and the fickle tastes of “the mob” with “Coriolanus.” Taking the title role, that of a military hero modest enough to not readily accept accolades, snobbish and proud enough to refuse to pander to public tastes, Fiennes surrounds himself with a stunning cast. And as director, he gives this war drama a BBC/CNN war zone coverage, hand-held camera immediacy — men with M-16s shooting men with AK-47s — but men who know, as Shakespeare did, that the ugliest, most horrific combat is personal, hand to hand, knife to knife.
Martius has a super-patriotic mom, a devoted wife (Jessica Chastain), a son who longs to follow in his footsteps and allies (Brian Cox) in the Senate. But even single-handedly chasing off Tullus (Gerard Butler, not bad) and the enemy Volscians isn’t enough to make the impoverished classes of “a place called Rome” forget that he called them “dissentious rogues,” “curs” and worse when he was chasing them away from the city’s grain supplies.
Martius is unbending, unwilling to hear tributes to him in the Senate, unwilling to show a common touch or soft side. It will be his undoing, even after he’s been renamed Coriolanus, after his latest victory.
Fiennes has gone at this play the way Sir Ian McKellen adapted “Richard III,” and Orson Welles once updated “Julius Caesar.” He has updated the military setting and found a world filled with contemporary parallels to what Shakespeare was addressing.
What is his mob but the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street? What is the patrician Senate but “the one percent?” And who is Coriolanus but a noble man of heroic measure but myopic view of humanity?
Shakespeare fans will glory in some of the Bard’s flintiest dialogue.
“If e’er again I meet him beard to beard, he’s mine or I am his,” Tullus spits, talking about his sworn enemy, Martius.
Asked to dinner after her son’s downfall, Volumnia isn’t hearing it.
“ANGER is my meat!”
Redgrave hasn’t had a role this good since “Howard’s End,” and one this charged with fury since–who knows? It’s towering performance.
Fiennes, too, is in his element, rage so overwhelming he spits with every line.
The filmmaker in him highlights every timeless theme that Shakespeare trotted out, that age-old truism that the world loves a man in uniform, until he takes it off, the ways politicians rouse the rabble for their own nefarious ends. He and screenwriter John Logan trim the play and ends it, not with a whimper, but a deflating bang.
The great actors, from Welles and Olivier to Branagh and McKellen, want the popular audience to see what they see in Shakespeare — that he still matters, that he still moves, thrills and teaches. With “Coriolanus,” Fiennes brilliantly takes his place in their ranks.
MPAA Rating: R for some bloody violence
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox
Credits: Directed by Ralph Fiennes, written by William Shakespeare, adapted by John Logan. A Weinstein Co. release.
Running time: 2:02