Shakespeare’s play about a Roman general who survives battle only to take on the bigger battles of politics has been brought to screen by Ralph Fiennes, who directed and stars as the title character. Contemporary costumes and weapons and Serbian locations underscore how little has changed in the 500 years since Shakespeare wrote the play and indeed in the more than 2000 years since the events depicted.
Caius Martius (Fiennes) is a general who returns home in triumph after defeating the Tarquins and rewarded by being given the new surname Coriolanus. His fierce mother (Vanessa Redgrave in an incendiary performance) is proud and ambitious. His wife (Jessica Chastain), is quietly devoted. He calls her “my gracious silence.” He is persuaded to go into politics, but his public statements come across as arrogant and ignorant. He sees it as honesty and refusing to pander to the crowd but he is condemned as a traitor and exiled. Furious, he goes to the other side, first offering to sacrifice himself and then joining forces to attack his own city. Once again he faces the leader of the opposing forces (Gerard Butler).
Fiennes makes an impressive debut as a director, making good use of the locations to evoke the chaos of a war-torn world and its symbolism for what is most broken and bleakest inside the title character. Redgrave matches his ferocity, helping us realize a depth of understanding for one of Shakespeare’s few lead tragic characters who never explains himself with asides or monologues. Butler, as the antagonist who understands Coriolanus better than his family, his colleagues, and the political operators who want to use him, is the cracked mirror who provides the insight that Coriolanus fails to have for himself. The single-mindedness and lack of introspection that served him — and Rome — so well as a general leave him defenseless when the war is over.
Parents should know that this film includes bloody battle violence with characters injured and killed.
Family discussion: What leaders in today’s world are most like Coriolanus? Like those who encourage him to try politics?
If you like this, try: “Looking for Richard,” with Al Pacino working on a production of “Richard III.”