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Director-star Ralph Fiennes’s take on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus plays like a furious sketch dashed off in the wake of Fiennes’s turn in The Hurt Locker: the tale of a hardened soldier, a killing machine, rendered temperamentally unfit by his battle experiences for peacetime life—let alone the life of small-r republican politics mapped out for him by his formidable mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave). Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan have pared the play down and updated it, setting the action in a war-torn city-state called “Rome” that evokes nowhere in particular but Ireland and Bosnia generally. I’ve always maintained that such updating is a bad idea and rejoice in being proved wrong, which happened when my friend Michael Almereyda set his Hamlet with Ethan Hawke in the Big Apple. And it happens again here: Fiennes and Logan haven’t made a definitive Coriolanus, but they’ve made a sensationally gripping one. They have the pulse of the play, its firm martial beats and its messy political clatter. They tell a damn good story.
It helps that where Shakespeare (or the Earl of Oxford, or Marlowe) had to write “Exeunt fighting,” Logan could specify something along the lines of “Coriolanus slowly draws the knife across the carotid of Fighter No. 1 and is drenched in arterial spray.” We admire this famously unpleasant tragic hero more when we can see him in his element and get a dose of the adrenaline that The Hurt Locker’s Kathryn Bigelow (taking her cue from iconoclastic war correspondent Christopher Hedges) likened to an addictive drug. Fiennes shoots these sequences with handheld cameras and gets in the warriors’ faces, chief among them his own, a scowling mask with a map of ugly scars. Those scars have dramatic weight. Volumnia boasts of them as a means of winning the people’s hearts, while Coriolanus (né Caius Martius), compelled to run for the office of consul, tells the Senate, “I had rather have my wounds to heal again / Than hear say how I got them.” I’ve seen two other (great) Coriolanuses—Alan Howard at the Royal Shakespeare Company and Christopher Walken at the Public—and both were glad-handing schmoozers next to Fiennes’s social retard, who’s so viscerally ill at ease that the notion of putting him up for any kind of public office seems demented.
But that is Fiennes and Logan’s conceit and, on its own terms, it works. They don’t go in for political nuance. The plebeians and rival senators are permitted to have no stature, and there’s no suggestion that Coriolanus might be worthy of fierce opposition for consul given his atrocious people skills and possible penchant for martial law. (They do not, for that matter, say what a consul actually does in this modern context.) Instead, they show how much more at home Coriolanus is in the presence of his bitterest Volscian enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), than with anyone else, including his stunner of a wife (Jessica Chastain, riveting as ever). As her son’s most vigorous political promoter, Volumnia is also his most effective saboteur—not to mention the scariest political matriarch this side of Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate.
Redgrave might not be one of the world’s greatest verse speakers, but being one of its greatest actresses compensates for much: What comes through, even on the eve of Redgrave’s 75th birthday, is a kind of girlish, shining-eyed political certainty that would impel many a dubious man to do her bidding. As her most dogged supporter, Menenius, Brian Cox gives a superb performance, at once urgent and gentle, giving the lie to Coriolanus’s conviction that all politicians are founts of phoniness. But there isn’t a performance misjudged or a line misspoken. True, it’s bizarre to hear Shakespeare’s language in the mouths of TV newsreaders and commentators on the Roman-Volscian conflict, but my response was not “How unrealistic!” but rather “If only!”