Anyone burdened with studying Coriolanus for the Leaving Cert (I was that soldier) will have their eyes and ears opened by Ralph Fiennes’s gripping directorial debut. Taking one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, Fiennes, who also plays the lead, catapults the tale of a Roman soldier who takes revenge on his own people into the here and now. Bold, bloody and occasionally brilliant, Coriolanus pitches the tale of bullet and hard-headed Caius Martius ‘Coriolanus’; a die-hard soldier who will not bend his knee to plebian nor politician. For this he pays the ultimate price, but in his uncompromising attitude and there’s a savage nobility.
If this sounds all very stagey, fear not. Despite retaining much of the original text – and sticking faithfully to the story - Fiennes has fashioned a compelling drama that rocks with resonance. Opening with scenes of a city in tumult (the caption reads “a place calling itself Rome”, also the title of John Osborne’s unproduced modern day adaptation), we go hand-to-hand with Caius Martius in a tale of modern day warfare and age-old politics. With the barbarians (the Volscians) marching on the gates, only men like Caius Martius – the city’s enforcer - can save the day.
After defeating his mortal enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) at Corioles, the Roman returns in triumph and is honoured with the name of the vanquished town. Now the soldier has to learn the art of politics: but even with the sage tutelage of Menenius (Brian Cox) and under the Svengali-like influence of his mother, Volumnia, Coriolanus is not for turning.
Shot in the Serbian capital of Belgrade – and with Serbian Special Forces playing Coriolanus’s troops – Fiennes imbues the drama with a savage grittiness from the tattooed soldiers to the slieveen politicians. There is no sense of novelty or gimmickry here – most of the contemporary props and backdrops ring true, even the use of Channel 4’s news anchor, Jon Snow – and the central performance of Fiennes (a role he had mastered on stage a decade earlier) is all fire and fury and brute intelligence.
The supporting cast are superb, including a luminous Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’s influential mother, Volumnia, a warrior-like woman who has made her son what he is before ultimately unmaking him. The talented Jessica Chastain plays Virgilia, Caius Martius’s wife and Gerard Butler is surprisingly muscular – and not just in the obvious way – as Coriolanus’s nemesis. Bold and ambitious, Fiennes’s directorial debut is an impressive work. Three decades or so after I first dipped into that Leaving Cert Coriolanus, I at last understood what made him tick. No mean feat.