The greatest attribute of William Shakespeare's canon is its versatility. Over the course of 37 plays he delved into issues of love and horror, of whimsy and war, creating worlds we've revisited time and time again. With a modern sheen, his old English almost becomes contemporary, his plots fitting into the modern landscape as if they're meant to be there, and that's no more apparent than Ralph Fiennes' directorial debut, Coriolanus.
One of Shakespeare's last tragedies, Coriolanus is practically forgotten – a larger-than-life figure unnoticed in an adoring haze of Macbeths and Lears, getting only occasional theatrical productions and never a feature film. It's strange for a character who commands his space so completely, who requires charisma and masculinity to such degrees that it can barely be contained.
Closely following the play, Fiennes reveals the story of Caius Martius Coriolanus (Fiennes) – a soldier who lives and breathes war. Though he has a wife, son, and mother at home, he is completely consumed by an overwrought sense duty and aggression; it gains him favor in the military, but not amongst the Roman plebeians. He looks down on the citizens who don't serve their country and believes he is part of a higher, more worthy class while the citizens themselves riot, blaming Caius Martius for the grain shortage and hunger plaguing Rome.
After a particularly dangerous battle against the Volscians (led by Tullus Aufidius, played by Gerard Butler), Gaius Martius is given the name Coriolanus and put on the fast-track for consul. Being a soldier, Coriolanus isn't very keen on the idea but plays along at the urging of his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave). He hates the thought of having to appease the regular Roman population, but lets his friend Menenius (Brian Cox) pave the way for his political future.
But times are volatile. He only wins the public's favor momentarily before two tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius, publicly denounce him and scheme to destroy him. They ignite another riot, which sends Coriolanus into a fury against the people, opening the door for the tribunes to demand his banishment. Cast off by the nation he has loved and served, Coriolanus wants revenge and finds it in the Volscian capital of Antium, where he and his enemy Aufidius put aside their past and plot to destroy Rome together.
On the stage, Coriolanus is all about the mixture of duty and charisma. It's the pomp and circumstance of war and revenge played through the magnetic presence of men like Olivier, Burton, McKellen, Walken, Freeman, Feore, and even Fiennes himself. But he rips all that away for the screen. With the theatrical presence and delivery removed, Fiennes relishes in the man. Coriolanus becomes less about duty and more about masculinity and identity. He is a result of his mother's stringent sense of duty, a soldier since adolescence, knowing nothing but the art of war (much like the other TIFF 2011 release, Albert Nobbs). He is incapable of connecting with people, whether they're the Roman public or his own family. He's innocent as much as he is callous. He wasn't trained to be a politician. He was trained to fight, and ironically, he must be banished to fulfill that need, and when he does, he finds his power. In the Volscian army he becomes the leader Menenius dreamed he could be. It angers Aufidius, but the result was inevitable. Coriolanus respects duty above all else, and as a man who lives and breathes war, he thrives in a world of soldiers.
The quest for identity becomes even more palpable set today. Fiennes has chosen a modern, Balkan world. News of famine and war are relayed over the television. Coriolanus and his soldiers wear fatigues and carry machine guns. Thanks to cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, they fight in a Hurt Locker haze of dust, guns, and death. The plebeians thus become the political activists, watching, plotting protests, and speaking out. It's quite political, which might be off-putting to some audiences, but it's an inevitable fact in the story Shakespeare crafted. Coriolanus is a war hero thrust into a political world he shouldn't be a part of, a political figure incapable of the task.
Fiennes plays Coriolanus as a man both strong and weak – a hero so singularly focused that his biggest strength is his biggest weakness. Without the usual charisma, Coriolanus shrinks, and the other players begin to shine. Butler plays Coriolanus' enemy with a certain reserved, quiet demeanor – something impossible on the stage, but which offers a wonderful balance to Coriolanus' flamboyant masculinity. Brutus (Paul Jesson) and Sicinius (James Nesbitt), meanwhile, become clever manipulators of the people and media in Fiennes' modern “Rome,” while Cox knows how to intermingle genuine care with his ability to politically manipulate. But more than anyone else, this is Volumnia's world to shine, and there's no better actress for the part than Vanessa Redgrave.
This isn't Redgrave phoning in an easy performance in a romance like Letters to Juliet, or even many of her regular Shakespearean performances. As Volumnia, she is truly the fiercest person in the work, the cold manipulator just as duty-obsessed as her son, but with a life of real experiences that allow her to blend better into the world. When Redgrave faces Fiennes, it's almost as if the ground rumbles because this is the true battle – not the bloody fighting and war, but the face-off between mother and son. She is so good, so natural in this world that even the best of them – Fiennes – seems but a sliver of talent in her presence. In the plot, it works perfectly. In a film with a diverse cast, she's practically floating off the ground, looking down at her fellow actors.
Nevertheless, what Fiennes achieved most of all was his sense of how Shakespeare fits in the modern world. He was able to take a truly epic and masculine story and have it speak on a level it never has before. If Kenneth Branagh was the man who filmed Shakespeare through the guise of adoration, let Fiennes be the man who reveals the modernity of the Bard.