And you thought Ralph Fiennes was scary as Voldemort.
The actor makes a bloody and bruised directing debut with Coriolanus, a lesser-known Shakespeare tragedy that explores themes shared by more famous tragic brothers Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear. Power, ambition and pride are at the heart of this political drama, which is set in a contemporary Rome that mirrors our world in many ways, though perhaps not enough.
Fiennes stars as the Roman general Coriolanus (Fiennes), a fearless warrior who faces revolt on the home front while also waging war against the neighboring state of Volsci. After a hard-fought victory over the Voslcian general Aufidius (Gerard Butler), Coriolanus is persuaded to run for political office, which proves to be as deadly a venue as the battlefield.
Fiennes films all of this with an antic ferocity – the scenes of chaotic urban warfare and political speechmaking employ the same antsy camera and aggressive close-ups. When Coriolanus lets loose (if the man has a tragic flaw, it’s not pride or ambition but a basic lack of a filter), it’s with a spittle-spewing fit of verbal rage. Coriolanus lives to wage war, not for his country or the people he represents, but for his own satisfaction (and he’s usually not satisfied until he’s caked with blood). Unable to hide this narcissism on the public stage, he comes across as maniacal and deranged. In comparison, Voldemort looks like a surly magician stuck performing at a kids’ birthday party.
Coriolanus’ inability to play the political game is of particular frustration to his machinating mother (Vanessa Redgrave, spewing fire of her own). A manipulating matron on par with Lady Macbeth, Coriolanus’ mother cajoles him and berates him as if he were a child. By movie’s end, she’s formed him into her own sort of Manchurian Candidate.
With Redgrave and Fiennes as the driving forces, Coriolanus becomes a chamber piece of anger and intensity. Yet it also remains stuck in that chamber, never resonating with the world outside. It’s not always necessary for a film to speak to contemporary concerns, of course, but given the way the play reads in the aftermath of last year’s Occupy movements, this interior Coriolanus feels like a missed opportunity. (In the original text, an early speech by an angry citizen decrying “piercing statutes daily to chain up and restrain the poor” feels like a rallying call for the 99%.)
To be fair, it could very well be that Fiennes had the movie wrapped before the protests broke out. In which, case we’ll just have to be thankful for the forceful film that we have.