A scarred, shaven, tattooed Ralph Fiennes in combat gear and wielding an assault rifle shoots up independence fighters in a burned-out city. This is Shakespeare, Fiennes-style.
His first full-length feature as director, “Coriolanus,” is showing in competition at the Berlin Film Festival. It’s a blood-soaked, action-packed update of one of Shakespeare’s trickier plays to stage. Fiennes and scriptwriter John Logan kept the original text though they cut large chunks and added scenes.
Shot in Belgrade, “Coriolanus” is a violent political thriller with iambic pentameter dialogue, homoerotic undertones and some fine acting from Royal Shakespeare Company veterans including Vanessa Redgrave as Fiennes’s dominant, ambitious mother, the majestically named Volumnia. As with most Shakespeare plays, the story is universal: War-mongering political leaders who care little for ordinary folk are sadly just as present on the world stage today as they were in the 17th century.
Rioting Romans, demanding bread, storm the central grain store at the opening of the movie: Caius Martius (later Coriolanus) confronts them with his brutal, ferociously equipped troops. Meanwhile, the neighboring Volscians, led by Gerard Butler as Tullus Aufidius, are threatening Roman territory. Martius’s victory, secured in an improbable one-on-one knife fight with Aufidius, brings him glory and honor.
Bid for Consul
His iron-nerved, militaristic mother (she would have made a decent general herself as played by Redgrave) sees this as an opportunity to launch his political career. Yet Coriolanus messes up by showing contempt for the people of Rome when he is supposed to be canvassing for their votes. Pressing the flesh is just not his thing -- he prefers ripping it apart.
Othello had jealousy, Macbeth got ambition: Coriolanus’s fatal flaw is tactlessness. Banished from Rome, Fiennes spends time in the wilderness, emerging with lots of hair to seek out Aufidius and exact his revenge.
The relationship between these two warriors is fascinating: They swear to hate each other, and yet as he accepts Coriolanus’s offer to lead an attack on Rome, Aufidius also declares his passion.
It’s all in Shakespeare’s original, so this is not about sexing it up for a modern audiences: “But that I see thee here,/ Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart/ Than when I first my wedded mistress saw/ Bestride my threshold.”
Volumnia’s impassioned plea to Coriolanus changes his mind about attacking Rome and leads him to sign a peace agreement with the Volscians. Yet things get grisly again before the end.
Newscasters on a 24-hour channel called Fidelis narrate off-stage events -- in blank verse -- accompanied by video footage. Believe it or not, that almost works.
The conviction of all of the actors in delivering their lines injects freshness and immediacy into Shakespeare’s text. It rarely seems incongruous, and sometimes the language is so economical it takes your breath away.
Fiennes, 48, has played Coriolanus many times on stage and told a Berlin press conference he had the project in mind for many years, seeing it as natural fodder for an action movie. Funding for the film, which according to Premier Public Relations Ltd. will be released by year end, proved difficult.
It’s bold of Fiennes to try to make a film that will appeal to Shakespeare fans and action-movie addicts alike. He just might pull it off.
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
For more information on the Berlin Film Festival, go to http://www.berlinale.de/en.
(Catherine Hickley is a writer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are her own.)