William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is the story of a peerless soldier undone twice: first by an inability to stir any tenderness in his soul when he’s made a leader of men, then by a late-arriving overabundance of that tenderness. He’s only skilled at killing—bred for it by a patriotic mother, if not born to it—and lost when called upon to do anything else. As played by Ralph Fiennes in his own cinematic adaptation of the play, Coriolanus’ military genius makes him a figure of awe, but it’s his near-absence of empathy that makes him terrifying. One scene captures both: resplendent in his military dress after winning an important battle, Fiennes waits outside the senate’s chambers to be honored by the men who sent him there. A janitor passes by him, and Fiennes looks on uncomprehendingly, as if encountering a new species. His home is on the battlefield. The air anywhere else leaves him gasping.
Fiennes shot the film, his directorial debut, in Serbia, no doubt drawn to Eastern Europe in part for budgetary reasons. But instead of trying to dress Belgrade and nearby locations up as another part of the world, he goes all in, filling Coriolanus with imagery from the war in the former Yugoslavia. The setting is “a place calling itself Rome,” but it could be any place where civilization has started to teeter on the brink thanks to war and inequality. Fiennes makes the film feel immediate in other ways as well. Many of the play’s expository passages become broadcasts on a CNN-like network, and the film leans heavily on ground-level, handheld camerawork. It may be a coincidence that the plebeians demanding bread echo the Occupy protests, but the coincidence is striking, as is the way the film’s politicians turn their discontent into just another means to gain leverage over the opposing side. It’s a fine example of how a contemporary setting can accentuate the continued relevance of Shakespeare’s themes, and it bodes well for Fiennes’ future as a director.
Fiennes described Coriolanus to The New York Times as “an emotionally rather stunted person who has a total commitment to a particular value.” Fiennes performance illustrates that commitment; the supporting cast demonstrates the ways in which Coriolanus’ devotion to military honor alienates those around him. Brian Cox co-stars as a consummate politician who tries to smooth his friend’s entry into politics, and Jessica Chastain plays a loyal wife whose affection is repaid with distance. Even Coriolanus’ mother (Vanessa Redgrave), who professes to esteem military achievement above all else, doesn’t understand what makes her son tick. She’s ingrained in him too well the values she holds most dear, leaving them untempered by tenderer virtues.
The film, in turn, is similarly short on tenderness. Fiennes’ Coriolanus is brutal and bleak, cynical about politics, wary of war, and unable to offer alternatives to either. The hero develops his most intimate relationship with his greatest enemy, a Volscian general played by Gerard Butler (whose gruffness and limited range are put to good use here). They may hate each other, but they also understand each other. Both are men more comfortable waging war than enjoying peace, but only Butler understands the dead end they’ll meet should peace ever prevail. They’re the men molded by their chaotic times into forms that have no use should those times start to change, masters of a war without end, but victims of it, too.