Coriolanus (2011) Director: Ralph Fiennes
Ralph Fiennes’s directorial debut, 2011’s Coriolanus is a contemporary reimagining of Shakespeare’s play as if it took place in our post-9/11 milieu. It presents yet another hand-held, shaky camera documentary-style movie (which has since become something of a cliché), as we are taken through a dark and grey bombed-out warzone filled with violent explosions, graffiti, and the endless sound of machine gun fire. There is actually quite a bit of overlap between this version of Coriolanus and movies like The Hurt Locker.
Fiennes plays the titular character Caius Martius Coriolanus, a vicious, blood-soaked general of “Rome” (a vague contemporary nation likely located somewhere in the Balkans). It brings to mind Kosovo, Iraq, or Syria (Coriolanus was filmed in the Balkans in the very same halls where Milosevic once haunted). In this dark, war-torn era, Coriolanus utterly despises the common people of his own country while facing off against his nemesis and general of the Volscis, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). In spite of his victories on the battlefield, Coriolanus is banished by the riotous people of Rome. This leads him to defect to the Volscis and jointly march on Rome, but before he can destroy his home city, Coriolanus is persuaded of peace by his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave). In the end, he is brutally stabbed to death by a conspiracy of Volscis. Other notable actors who appear in Coriolanus include: Jessica Chastain as Virgilia (Coriolanus’s wife) and Brian Cox as Senator Menenius.
While I can appreciate the extraordinary vision that went into creating this film, generally speaking, it seems to me that something is lost when removing the intended context from which a Shakespearean play is set. Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus to illuminate something deeply important about ancient Rome, the nature of a republic as a political regime, and an examination of Aristotle’s magnanimous man. It has long been a controversial play. Beloved by the Nazis, Coriolanus was later reworked by the likes of Bertolt Brecht among others –Coriolanus’s open contempt for the common people runs the risk of serving as propaganda for the worst among us. Perhaps this is why so few movie versions of the play have been made. At any rate, Fiennes’s interpretation of Coriolanus is remarkable in many respects, but I prefer the plays of Shakespeare performed in their intended context.