No matter what your experience level though, it's an ambitious undertaking to adapt Shakespeare, especially a play that isn't exactly one of the Bard's Greatest Hits. But hey, Hollywood loves a reimagining, right? And with Coriolanus, the actor-turned-director delivers a gritty take on the classical tragedy, updating the political drama to a modern setting while maintaining the Bard's original text.
Revisiting a role he played on stage back in 2000 (this is the first time the play has been adapted for the big screen), Fiennes stars as Caius Martius Coriolanus, a willing-soldier-turned-reluctant-politician after a victory over his rival, guerilla fighter Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). But when the prickly Coriolanus is either unwilling or unable to pander to the people for their support, he finds himself banished from the city he bled to protect -- and eager to enact revenge on his former people, even if it means forming an alliance with his mortal enemy.
Shakespeare, With Rocket Launchers Ralph Fiennes is hardly the first director to give a modern update to the work of history's most famous playwright. But still, when a blood-soaked Fiennes walks back through the mist, machine gun hanging at his side, to give a rousing speech to his soldiers, you expect him to deliver a monologue straight out of 'Call of Duty,' not Elizabethan England. But it's that disconnect that makes Coriolanus so interesting, even if the Shakespearean dialogue is a little difficult to parse at first.
Set in "a place calling itself Rome" (which looks an awful lot like Eastern Europe), Coriolanus is a modern political thriller as a 17th century tragedy. Instead of a Greek chorus, we get CNN-style news reports delivered by Channel 4 News host Jon Snow (in iambic pentameter, of course). And the scenes of civil unrest play out in an equally familiar fashion, with civilian rioters holding up cell phones and video cameras as they all but Occupy Rome. But Fiennes wisely distances Coriolanus from aligning with any specific movement thanks to retaining the Bard's original text; the actor/director is more interested in the human story here than any overtly political agenda.
The result is a film that feels remarkably real and modern once the initial novelty of its affected speech wears off. That's helped by the early movie firefights -- shot with a handheld camera, they could be straight out of any recent war movie -- and for good reason: cinematographer Barry Ackroyd brings Coriolanus the same shaky-cam aesthetic he used in movies like The Hurt Locker and Green Zone.
And while there can be a temptation to essentially just film the play for an inexperienced director, Fiennes goes in the complete opposite direction here. Going handheld whether they're in the bunker or the parliament, he and Ackroyd make frequent use of close-ups. It's an intimate, intense shooting style, though at times it's too much, as the camera shakes with the force of Fiennes' saliva-spitting monologues. Still, for a first-time director, it's a wise move to surround yourself with proven talent.
Casting is Key That extends to the casting as well, and one of Fiennes' smartest choices as a director was the fine cast he was able to put together for his directorial debut. Shakespearean English can pose a serious challenge to even the best of actors; sometimes they're so focused on nailing the iambic pentameter they forget they have to act too, or they go the opposite way and give a performance so stilted it would make William Shatner cringe. And while his own performance can go overboard at times -- a casualty of the difficulty of constantly switching back and forth between acting and directing -- the rest of his actors make Fiennes look downright brilliant.
It's not much of a surprise, considering the names here. As Coriolanus' equally blood-thirsty mother, Vanessa Redgrave is as good as you'd expect her to be. And while Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan had to cut a lot to trim one of Shakespeare's longest plays down to two hours, they were wise not to touch Redgrave's role; the entire movie hinges on the mother-son relationship. Meanwhile, the first-time director lucked out with Jessica Chastain, catching 2011's breakout star on the way up. But it's Brian Cox, as the career politician Menenius, that impresses the most. And it's a shame that more moviegoers will see him phoning in stock villainy in Rise of the Planet of the Apes this year.
It's not a perfect movie, but despite his lack of experience, the actor's recent BAFTA nomination for outstanding directorial debut is well-deserved. Credit Fiennes for smartly surrounding himself with an experienced cast and crew that were up to the task of the bloody and brooding adaptation. With its iambic pentameter punctuated by bouts of gunfire, Coriolanus is an intense drama that does both Shakespeare and Fiennes justice.