It is really amazing how intense Ralph Fiennes can get and how he can make even you as an audience member feel puny and as if you’ve crossed him. As Caius Martius Coriolanus in his directorial debut Fiennes plays the Roman general who is at one point poised for greatness and the next being opposed by the rioters in the street who were whipped up by Brutus (a brilliant James Nesbitt) and Sicinius (Paul Jesson) into not supporting him. This is a strict translation of the Shakespeare play that was believed to have been written between 1605 and 1608 and was based on the tragic life of the Roman leader of the same name. Fiennes has set his version in a more modern world where it is almost hard to decipher between the fact this is a fabrication of history made long ago and not an interpretation of what is going on over seas. Unlike all those films from a few years ago that attempted to depict America in its workings with Iraq and Iran though this is still based in Rome it simply shows how relevant and similar that what was happening then is in many ways still going on. It some ways it shows how little we have evolved from our ancestors while displaying a central character who seems so tyrannical we can only feel relieved to live in a country where the gap between the common man and those isn't as wide, or at least as wide as Coriolanus lets it be known. Like Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of 'Romeo & Juliet" this telling updates the setting while leaving the language intact. This makes it somewhat harder to follow for the modern movie-goer but Fiennes has surrounded himself with such a great supporting cast and a stellar performance himself we decipher what they are saying by the passion in their acting.

Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes, center) is surrounded by his
family and Roman council members as he is recognized for
his bravery.
Before hearing about this film, "Coriolanus" was one of Shakespeare's plays I had not heard of. While it may be one of his lesser known pieces it certainly contains many of the elements and themes that are present in his more popular plays. Coriolanus is a general, not yet a ruler, but he denounced those in the general public and those who he feels have a lack of military service. In the tense and well choreographed opening battles of the film Coriolanus leads his men to siege the city of Corioles. They are able to force open the gates of the city, and conquer it. Even after this, Coriolanus finds his fellow general and aids in fighting the Volscian force. The commander of the Volscian army is Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) a bloody enemy of Coriolanus's. They meet in combat and are only both left alive by the sheer intensity of their fight and the fact their fellow soldiers drag them away from the battle. Upon his return from battle Coriolanus is persuaded by his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave in a great performance) to run for Consul which he is usually hesitant to do, but decides to give it a try on his mothers suggestion. Coriolanus also returns to a wife, Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) and a son. In his attempt to win a place on the consul he easily wins over his peers on the Roman council but when it appears he has also won over the commoners is that moment Brutus and Sicinius turn the tide and have Coriolanus exiled instead. The way in which Fiennes has translated this to modern day works for the majority of the film, but it was in this scene that it felt the most unnatural. That it could not simply be spoken for a man of his stature to be exiled but more would have to go into it, a formal hearing at the least rather than a talk show discussion.

Gerard Butler as Tullus Aufidius. 
Fiennes knows how to take your attention off such aspects though as he delivers Shakespeare's words with such violent vigor that when he speaks such lines that translate as, "it is he who banishes Rome from his presence." We realize the level at which he sees himself and the betrayal he no doubt feels from everyone around him. In seeking revenge on the city he fought for that has outcast him he seeks out Aufidius and offers to let Aufidius kill him in order to spite the country that banished him. Butler has, since his breakout "300" role chosen hits and misses to elevate his career but in 2011 seemed to re-evaluate his choices and takes a turn not only for the more credible here but with a limited amount of screen time turns in a performance that elicits all of the correct characteristics we should feel for Aufidius. He is moved by Coriolanus's plight and honored to fight alongside the great general, they embrace Coriolanus, and allow him to lead a new assault on his former city. It ends up being a tale of vengeance that goes unfulfilled but it is the way with which Fiennes approaches the material that makes it so much more than watching a bunch of good actors recite old English. The handy cam that invades each characters space as if literally trying to get inside their head allows those not able to keep up with the language an alternative way to understand the story and the conflict that is going on on screen. Fiennes, as I mentioned earlier, also has the knowledge to fill his cast with capable actors that can translate this material as if it were natural. Both Redgrave as the domineering mother and the always fantastic Chastain give performances that create a subliminal dynamic of why Coriolanus has become the man he is and what he could be. Brian Cox should also be noted as giving a stellar performance as Menenius, the only man in Coriolanus's corner with some of the juiciest lines. This combination of tragedy and gore with the elegance of Shakespearean language creates a relevant message with an age old tale.

Coriolanus is persuaded by his mother Volumnia (Vanessa
Redgrave) to stop his plan to attack Rome. 
The best thing about "Coriolanus" though is that it feels right. It feels like it fits and for being the first project Fiennes took on as a director it feels exceptionally grand. He relies sometimes a little too heavily on the news highlights to relate the main story points to those in the audience who may feel a little lost, but that is understandable. He has created an overall tone though that feels like something Shakespeare himself would love and feels represents his story correctly. Even if you cannot understand the language all the time it consistently has an electric tone. There is something urgent about it, something that helps us understand the theme and meanings Shakespeare was trying to point out in a world that suffers many of the same problems. A leader who is raised to believe he is of a special breed, a fascist that has the nerve to be so easily influenced by a mother that can bend him any which way she pleases. It is so engaging dramatically I was left wonder why more of Shakespeare's plays are not attempted to be modernized and translated to the big screen. It is a concept rich with possibilities and as "Coriolanus" shows great possible outcomes. Though it was only in limited release here in the U.S. and will be making its way to the rental shelves no doubt sooner than it should this is a visually and dramatically arresting drama that deserves to be seen and serves as a great jumping off point for Fiennes in his directing career. I can only wonder what his next project might be and hope with great anticipation that it is as fulfilling as his first.

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