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'Coriolanus': A People's Hero Turns On His Own

<strong>Bare-Knuckle Politics:</strong> The battle-hardened Roman general Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes) runs for office at the urging of his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) — but it turns out he's no booster of majority rule.
Larry D. Horricks
The Weinstein Co.
Bare-Knuckle Politics: The battle-hardened Roman general Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes) runs for office at the urging of his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) — but it turns out he's no booster of majority rule.

Ralph Fiennes showed up for a frenzied cameo near the end of Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, and her hand-held, adrenaline-charged approach clearly inspired his film of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, which he both acts and directs the bloody hell out of.

He plays the Roman commander Caius Martius, awarded the name "Coriolanus" after vanquishing Rome's enemies the Volscians at their capital, Corioli, in 494 B.C. In the film, however, he does it with tanks and rifles in a war-torn city-state called "Rome" that evokes nowhere in particular, but 20th-century Northern Ireland and Bosnia generally.

I admit I have a prejudice against Shakespeare on screen in modern settings, but it's one I'll happily discard when the adaptors know what they're doing. My old friend Michael Almereyda made a wonderful Hamlet with Ethan Hawke, set in the Big Apple, and this Coriolanus is in the same league. Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan have the pulse of the story, its mixture of firm martial beats and messy political clatter. As cinema, it's thrilling.

I've been lucky to see two tremendous productions of Coriolanus onstage, one in London starring Alan Howard, the other in New York with Christopher Walken. Of the three, Fiennes' hero is by design the least likable. His Coriolanus is a hardened soldier, a glassy-eyed killing machine rendered unfit by his battle experiences for peacetime life.

In our modern parlance, he either has post-traumatic stress disorder or — as The Hurt Locker framed its hero — an addiction to the rush of war. The source of the tragedy is that his formidable mother, Volumnia, played by Vanessa Redgrave, has mapped out a career for Coriolanus in politics. She wants him to lead the republic, which means he has to slap the backs of senators and flatter the public. Even his soliloquy, his private resolution to become a politician, suggests he's the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

<strong>Can't Get Used To These Clothes: </strong>Coriolanus (Fiennes), receiving a hero's welcome, poses — awkwardly — with his mother (Redgrave), wife (Jessica Chastain), and son (Harry Fenn).
Larry D. Horricks / The Weinstein Co.
The Weinstein Co.
Can't Get Used To These Clothes: Coriolanus (Fiennes), receiving a hero's welcome, poses — awkwardly — with his mother (Redgrave), wife (Jessica Chastain), and son (Harry Fenn).

Fiennes' Coriolanus is so viscerally ill at ease that the notion of putting him up for public office seems demented. He's aggressively unpleasant. But thanks to the medium of cinema, we at least understand where he's coming from. Most of the carnage in Shakespeare is offstage, but Fiennes can show his hero in grueling hand-to-hand combat, once being drenched with arterial spray. Hurt Locker cinematographer Barry Ackroyd puts his camera in the warriors' faces, chief among them Fiennes', a scowling mask with a map of ugly scars.

Those scars have dramatic weight. His mother says to use them to win the peoples' hearts, but Coriolanus tells the Senate, "I had rather have my wounds to heal again / Than hear say how I got them."

Fiennes and Logan don't go in for political nuance. There's a good case to be made that a man with such atrocious people skills and a possible penchant for martial law would make a lousy leader, but Coriolanus' political rivals are portrayed as more self-serving than principled.

All the sympathy here goes to the warrior class. Coriolanus is much more at home in the presence of his bitterest Volscian enemy, played with surprising tenderness by Gerard Butler, than with anyone else, including his wife, the phenomenally versatile Jessica Chastain.

Redgrave is not one of the world's greatest verse speakers, but being one of its greatest actresses compensates for much. What comes through in her Volumnia, even on the eve of Redgrave's 75th birthday, is a kind of girlish, shining-eyed certainty that would impel many a dubious man to do her bidding. Brian Cox is superb as her most dogged supporter, an urgent yet gentle man who proves that not all politicians are, as Coriolanus maintains, founts of phoniness.

There isn't a bum note in the whole movie — but there are oddities. The Romans who debate the election are seen on TV screens. They're TV pundits who talk in iambic pentameter!

But after sitting through months of Sunday talk-show election blather, I wasn't thinking, "How unrealistic." I was thinking, "If only they sounded like this!"

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.