Ralph Fiennes (aka Voldemort) directed this version of the Shakespeare play Coriolanus. It’s a modern day retelling of a story about the early days of Rome. He retains the Shakespearean dialogue, which is always a must in my opinion. Instead of fighting with swords and horses, there are guns and bombs in this one. But the play easily converts to a modern ‘Place Calling itself Rome’.
Coriolanus takes place in the days of the Roman senate, and that idea is easily transported to a modern-day Rome, that looks more like an old communist city than a world capital. The peasants are starving while the rich withhold grain to maximize their profits. Rome is under attack from the Volsci. Caius Martius (Fiennes) is a military hero, spurred to constantly prove his worth in battle by his mother, who considers military heroics to be the only honorable quality. The leader of the Volsci, Aufidius, is played by Gerard Butler.
The two absolutely loathe each other. As Coriolanus says, ‘there is the man of my soul’s hate’. They meet in battle, but neither has been able to finish the other. But you know they will try each time they meet.
But what gets in the way of all this is politics. Caius Martius is offered a place as a Senator, because of his noble sacrifices and injuries in war. In order to obtain this position (which his friends and his mother want him to have), Martius must debase himself by asking for the people’s’ approval. He must pander to them, showing off his war wounds and recounting his brave deeds in battle. His disposition is such that he can’t even stay in a room when others discuss his heroics. He also actively and completely disdains the plebeian masses. So it doesn’t go well at all. It’s a tragedy play, after all.
I think Ralph Fiennes did an excellent job taking a play set in the B.C.E. and converting it to a realistic and comprehensible modern world. There’s something really brutal about the stark setting (it was shot in Serbia), the utilitarian violence, and the colors used, all of which gives you some insight into both of these military men. They exist, they thrive, in this harsh world, and they falter when confronted with a more nuanced and colorful and compromising world. Martius, brought up to believe only in the valor of military service and sacrifice, cannot comprehend the value of anyone who has not served and who does not perform to his best. He warns his fellow soldiers, before proceeding into battle, that if they try to retreat, he will ‘leave the foe/ And make my wars on you’. So…go ahead and don’t sign me up for that regiment.
Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, and Gerard Butler all put in great performances. They cajole, soothe, spur, spurn, and force Caius Martius to do things their way. It is this combined influence that leads him inexorably toward his tragic end. But, it’s all about Ralph Fiennes. He is the focal point, almost to a fault. I remember more of the other characters in the play, and they don’t shine as brightly in this version. But it’s definitely worth watching. And worth remembering and considering, whenever the government trots out a war vet for a photo-op.