Coriolanus is a difficult play; this is a first class movie. Ralph Fiennes directs and stars. His performance is outstanding. He is, I think, a better film actor than theatrical. On stage he can seem inanimate; on film, in close-up, we become aware of his eyes, which are the main tools of his talent. He is perfectly cast as Coriolanus. This is a tragic figure for whom honesty, both emotional and intellectual, is a weakness. He is not particularly sympathetically portrayed here, and yet the “lonely dragon” does garner our pity, as he surely must for the play to work, and this is due to Fiennes’s uncanny combination of fragility and brutality. This same quality I think gave weight to his part in Schindler’s List, in which, although he plays a monstrous character, he is not wholly monstrous, to the extent that we rather chillingly recognise him as human.
The supporting cast is equally good; even Vanessa Redgrave fails to irritate as Volumnia, and indeed the penultimate scene with Fiennes is riveting and bravely long (John Logan, screenwriter, producer and progenitor of the affair, has remained on the whole faithful to Shakespeare, and he and Fiennes have been unafraid to keep in what is central - but this is emphatically a movie, nonetheless). Brian Cox, as usual, is first rate and Gerard Butler looks very much the part as Coriolanus’s rival Aufidius, bravehearting his tattooed crew in his native Scottish accent. At any moment I expected him to declare “This is GLASGOW!”
Actually, the film is set in the recently-contemporary Balkans, and uses mock newsreel footage and Sky Newsflashes. The former works, the latter doesn’t, the sight of Channel 4 Newsreader Jon Snow speaking Shakespeare raising an unhelpful giggle rather than adding any verisimilitude. However, more than making up for this is the visual geography: a scarred, unfamiliar landscape. This is a world in which brute force thrives – in which, sometimes, it is morally necessary – and in which the sight of the warrior “sweating compassion” is therefore all the more telling.
Coriolanus is an undeservedly underperformed play. It is Shakespeare’s most overtly political, and provides perfect counterpoint to Julius Caesar (Caesar, unlike Coriolanus, having no principled scruples when it comes to loving the mob). Is Coriolanus a good man? Yes and no. Is Coriolanus a good film? Assuredly yes. Highly recommended.