Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s less-popular plays, making it a brave choice for Ralph Fiennes’ directorial début. However, the risk certainly pays off, as Fiennes transforms the play by moving the action from Ancient Rome to a recognisably brutal present.

As well as directing, Fiennes takes on the title role on this Shakespearian tragedy – just as he did in the stage production of this play over ten years ago. The fact that Fiennes evidently knows the work inside out benefits both his performance and the updating of the script. This, along with the assistance of Gladiator scriptwriter John Logan, allows Coriolanus‘ Roman politics plot to be seamlessly shifted to what appears to be modern-day Balkan territory – a setting that really suits this story.

Coriolanus is a military hero, returning home to the delight of his devoted wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) and proud mother Volumnia (Vanessa Regrave). However, after some all-too-familiar media manipulation of his words and a spate of bad PR, the state turn their back on their former victor and he is banished from the city. Lost and betrayed, he finds himself compelled to join forces with his past enemies, the Volscian army, headed up by Gerard Butler’s Aufidius.

Modernising this age-old tale generally works in Coriolanus‘ favour. Although the TV broadcast narrative devices, complete with cameo appearance from Channel 4’s Jon Snow, owe a great deal to Baz Luhrmann’s take on Shakespeare, although they are particularly effective within this context. There are perhaps one or two moments when such modernisations are slightly distracting: rioters capturing events on their camera phones seems a little gimmicky, if accurate, and the Jeremy Kyle-inspired talk show takes away from the film’s general seriousness. In general, however, techniques such as these allow the film to follow successfully in Romeo + Juliet‘s footsteps, in that it embraces the Shakespearian dialogue, while encouraging modern audiences to see the relevance of the story it tells.

Fiennes hogs the camera, as you’d expect, but his performance deserves the limelight. Yes, it’s a tad theatrical, but that doesn’t make it any less captivating and intense. Chastain, on the other hand, plays a woman who is as unfortunately wispy and weepy as her character in Malick’s The Tree of Life earlier this year. As a result, she is permanently overshadowed by Redgrave, who gives an incredibly powerful performance, finding a finely tuned mid-point between the two extremes – either calm or fiery – with which Volumnia tends to have been portrayed over the years.

Aside from the Shakespearian credentials, Coriolanus works surprisingly well as a stand-alone political piece. With cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, bringing a touch of The Hurt Locker to the action scenes, it’s a film which should hold the attention of an extremely diverse audience. As for Fiennes’ himself, it’s an impressive directorial début, and one which is likely to stand him in good stead when it comes to future film-making ventures.

Coriolanus is released in UK cinemas on 20th January 2012. 

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Rating: 5.0/5 (1 vote cast)
Like an eagle in a dove-cote: Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus - reviewed, 5.0 out of 5 based on 1 rating