Film review: Coriolanus

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IF STEVEN Moffat teleported William Shakespeare to the age of Balkan conflicts and put his words in the mouth of Ralph Fiennes, you might get a particularly whimsical episode of Doctor Who. Or you might get Coriolanus, Fiennes’ battle-scarred adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s less well-known tragedies.

Gimmicky Shakespeare productions are so commonplace on film now – a Nazi Richard III here, a musical Love’s Labour’s Lost there – that I’m starting to think actors strolling around in doublet and hose might be the really radical way of confounding expectations. Still, Fiennes has managed a few surprises with his directorial debut, which opens with helicopters, tanks and soldiers in battle fatigues striding around bombed-out buildings and not a Branagh in sight. Then Jon Snow pops up, spouting cable news comment in iambic pentameter.

Fiennes himself plays the unyielding, bullet-headed Caius Martius Coriolanus, who carries the livid scars of war on his face and body when he arrives back in Rome after defeating the Volscian town of Corioles. A political career appears to beckon, but Caius values personal integrity above popularity; or to put it another way, he has the most awful people skills this side of Gordon Brown.

Instead of taking the advice of his wife, Virgilia (Jessica Chastain), and his ferociously ambitious mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), he fails to disguise his impatience with the public. Despite the emollient politicking of his family friend Menenius (Brian Cox), the crowd turn on him, Coriolanus gets branded a traitor and is banished. Vowing revenge, he heads off to join forces with his former mortal enemy Aufidius (Gerard Butler) to launch an assault on Rome.

The contemporary relevance of soundbites gone awry, fickle public opinion and easily raised media storms are obvious, especially when a production is as lean as this one. Fiennes and writer John Logan have entire subplots pass before us as ticker tape on breaking news stories, but you can’t fault this treatment for clarity, even though its Balkans update isn’t always a good fit; why for instance, in an age of snipers, tanks and rockets, do these warriors prefer to chib each other?

As a director, Fiennes relies too much on frantic cutting and handheld cameras to telegraph urgency, but he has an uncluttered storytelling style. As a director of actors however, the results are mixed. Redgrave’s performance as the shiny-eyed mother of tyranny is eye-catching in its forcefulness but she’s not one of the world’s greatest verse speakers. On the plus side, Fiennes is unsparing and Cox so reliably good that you know if you hired him as your housesitter, the plants would still be alive a fortnight later. The riskiest casting is Gerard Butler, whose name has yet to be synonymous with “award-winning”. Here, he manages to avoid bumping into the furniture, although it’s a performance so recessive that he’s barely more than a snarl in search of personality. Coriolanus is not one of the Shakespeare A-list plays; it’s infrequently performed and has never been filmed for the big screen before, but Fiennes has conjured a decent production from a flawed play and it deserves to be seen.

Rating: ***

• On general release from Friday