There’s no proof that Coriolanus, a seldom-staged William Shakespeare tragedy that’s become Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut, was ever mounted in its author’s lifetime, and only slightly more evidence that the Roman general on whom he based it even existed. The critical reception is equally messy. T.S. Eliot called it the Bard’s greatest tragedy, stressing that it was superior to Hamlet; George Bernard Shaw claimed it had been misclassified, that it functioned better as a satirical comedy. As literature it’s a chaotic work, with a lead who’s not only an anti-hero but, unlike Lear and Macbeth, a frustratingly mum one, allergic to the soliloquies that give us insight into knotty minds.
The chaos behind and in Coriolanus is nicely mirrored in Fiennes’ adaptation, which was filmed in Belgrade with the Paul Greengrass School of whiplash handheld camerawork. Its source beaten into a two-hour pulp by all-star screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, lately Hugo), this is hectic, fleet-footed filmmaking, with actors shouting iambic pentameter amidst a time warp setting that places mostly British actors in a 1990s Yugoslav War-inspired setting, all of it overseen by 24-hour news networks.
Fiennes, naturally, takes the lead, playing a warrior whose victory over an encroaching enemy (led by Gerard Butler, mostly spittle) leads to him being shepherded into political life, with unexpected disastrous results. His mid-point downfall comes from his earth-quaking intolerance for a recent spate of protesters angry at the ruling class. When he calls these 99-percenters “you common cry of curs whose every breath I hate,” you can picture Karl Rove jotting down the line for future deployment.
The topicality, of course, is accidental, and like most Shakespeare “updates,” is shallow anyway. Like the Nazi imagery in the Ian McKellen-starring/-shepherded Richard III, it’s intended more as provocation than coherent commentary, as well as an in for a difficult—and, to most viewers, new—work. Even with its action movie aspirations, Coriolanus still functions like all Shakespeare films: as a depository of performances. Fiennes, in fiery bulletheaded mode, manages to out-ham Butler—a feat. As his domineering mother, Vanessa Redgrave makes you wish Vanessa Redgrave would act a lot more. And though Jessica Chastain, as his worrywort wife, reveals that master iambic pentameter is one thing she’s yet to master, this is but one minor flaw in an adaptation that’s sturdy, if not necessarily profound.