Coriolanus: Ralph Fiennes Striking Modernist Adaptation, Co-Starring Vanessa Redgrave

Marking the striking directorial debut of the gifted actor Ralph Fiennes, “Coriolanus” is an admirably bold and audacious screen adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays.


Moving the historical frame to modern times, in a shockingly smooth mode that does not in the least compromise the original play’s integrity, Fiennes’s rendition makes the text timely and relevant in both social and political ways.

Without ever sounding too message-oriented, this Coriolanus offers significant commentary on the cult of personality (the whole notion of fame and celebrity), the trickery nature of political campaigns (no matter who is running for office), and of course, the real and potential danger in establishing populist movements that bring both the best and the worst in the leaders and their mass followers.

The impressive international cast includes Vanessa Redgrave, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain; John Kani, James Nesbitt, Paul Jesson, Lubna Azabal, and Ashraf Barhom.

 Updating Shakespeare’s late-period tragedy of ancient Roman setting to the 21st Century of guerrilla insurgencies, instant polling and around-the-news, Fiennes delivers a trenchant tale of honor, power, politics and pride, which is set, as a title card informs in “A Place Called Rome.”

Working from an adapted screenplay by award-winning writer John Logan, Fiennes takes a bracingly post-modern approach to Shakespeare, delivering a story that speaks strongly to our own volatile times.

At the heart of this riveting saga is the personal journey of Caius Martius, the noble but severely flawed “Coriolanus” of the title.  A feared and revered military commander, he courts tragic results, both anticipated and unanticipated, when he enters the political arena.

When first met, Caius Martius Coriolanus is the scion of a proud, aristocratic military family, a man of great courage and integrity.  But as it becomes gradually clear, the very values and personal traits that have served him and his country in battle prove to signal his downfall in civil society.

As Rome’s most courageous general, he is revered for his ferocity in battle and willingness to die for his country.  But he is also controversial due to his explicit contempt towards ordinary Roman citizens—the uneducated masses.

After achieving an astounding victory in Rome’s long-running war with the Volsces, Coriolanus is prodded by his controlling and ambitious mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) to seek the prestigious and powerful office of Consul.

Volumnia holds firmly that Martius will reap yet more glory, but for his gentle wife, Virgilia (Jessica Chastain), the coming days will be filled with anxiety and fear.

But Coriolanus dislikes the false niceties diplomatic politicking, and he is loath to ingratiate himself with the masses, though he realizes that he needs their votes in order to secure the office. When the public rejects his bid, Coriolanus explodes in rage, causing a riot that leads to his expulsion from Rome.

Stateless and seeking revenge for Rome’s ingratitude and treachery, Coriolanus journeys to the city of Antium, the Volscian capital and home to his enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). With nothing to lose, he searches out his old adversary and boldly offers him a choice. Aufidius can either take Coriolanus’ life or accept his help in defeating Rome. Indeed, Aufidius must decide whether to destroy his rival or join forces with him in battle.

Every single role, including Coriolanus, which Fiennes has played on stage several times, is well cast, particularly Vanessa Redgrave as the leader’s mother. Redgrave has not had such a solid role in years, and with some justice, should be nominated for the Supporting Actress Oscar Award. She was honored by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (of which I am a member) for her impassioned performance.

With no exception, all the actors deliver their lines (including some long monologues and ardent speeches) with such fervor and commitment that it’s a pleasure just listening to them. That the movie is also stirring in its visual imagery and other production values contributes even more to the overall impact of the tale.