Coriolanus is perhaps Shakespeare’s most political work, and the issues it confronts are uncomfortably relevant.
Ralph Fiennes (who stars and directs) sets the film in a modern-day fictional Rome which is at war with its neighbours, the Volsces. Grain is being rationed, civil liberties have been curtailed, and popular unrest is being fomented. Caius Martius (Fiennes) is the brilliant general leading the war effort, and the people blame him for the food shortage and the stripping of their rights. Martius holds the people in unconcealed contempt and does not believe them worthy of participating in Rome’s democracy. The germ of fascism is alive and well inside him. In spite of this, after almost single-handedly defeating the Volsces at Corioles (where he takes the name Coriolanus), he is put up for the position of consul. Unable to hold his tongue, or perform the flattery of the masses required of a politician he botches his confirmation, and the tribunes conspire to have him banished. Filled with seething resentment he seeks out his bitter enemy, Tulius Aufidius (Gerard Butler), leader of the Volsces, and pledges his sword to help them defeat Rome.
Fiennes adeptly moves Coriolanus into the modern era and manages the not insubstantial task of making a horrible man (the sort who would have not just gone along with Nazism but championed it proudly) seem sympathetic. Or I suppose, Shakespeare managed that — his Coriolanus is honest to a fault and pure in his dealings with himself and others. There is a sense of honor, duty and self-sacrifice about him that it is impossible not respect. There is also an unstudied charisma, a force of will about him that makes him dangerous. Fiennes captures all this, and we are, if not quite in Coriolanus’s thrall, made to resist being pulled along in his wake.
The uncomfortable truth in Coriolanus is that the tribunes who whip up the mob against him in the name of saving democracy hold the people in contempt as well, as do the senators and other nobles. Coriolanus’s mistake was saying the quiet part loud. Fiennes manages to show us this all deftly, bringing us to the place where we understand that beneath the hatred of Coriolanus lives a kind of envy. He is a great man (if not a good one), and no one examines that struggle with destiny better than the Bard.
Fiennes’s adaptation is worthy of the source material and has been sorely underrated and overlooked.