Seldom regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most profound or popular tragedies, Coriolanus is a work that has, nonetheless, frequently been raided for contemporary parallels by directors and adaptors across the centuries. The play’s slippery dissection of democracy - its concern with “people power,” the challenges of leadership and what constitutes “good” rule - has left it open to multiple, often contradictory interpretations. Nahum Tate’s 1682 adaptation was set against Whig-Tory rivalry, while later adaptations referred to the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite Rebellions. In the 20th Century, the Nazis extolled the heroism of the protagonist and drew favourable comparisons with Hitler, while Brecht’s 1953 version surprised no-one by portraying the masses as heroes.
Ralph Fiennes’s big, brawny new film adaptation strives - sometimes astutely and sometimes ham-fistedly - to chime with the times. The tale of the warrior-hero who, when conspired against, turns his back on Rome to join forces with his arch-enemy, the Volscian general Aufidius, is the tragedy of a man who, though a notable success on the battle-field, is entirely unable to flatter or charm the populace. Tipping its hat to the title of John Osborne’s 1973 adaptation, Fiennes’s film locates the action in “a place calling itself Rome” - a Balkan war-zone - and the early scenes in which the citizens besiege the Senate and are beaten back by riot-police certainly gain an extra frisson in the light of the London riots and current worldwide anti-capitalist demos.
Making his directorial debut here, Fiennes has done a mostly commendable job of work. And returning to a role that he first played on stage in 2000, he also delivers a compelling central performance that has genuine gravitas. But his approach sometimes betrays a certain amount of insecurity in relation to the material. The film strives so hard to be cinematic - jittery camera-work? check; ear-splitting sound? check - that it’s occasionally a little embarrassing. The opening scenes suggest a particularly hyperbolic advert for a Panorama Special, and the decision to present the conflict between the Romans and the Volscians through the language of TV news media (yawn) feels all too predictable. (How fresh this device seemed when it book-ended Baz Lurhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet; how totally shopworn now. The nadir here is a Jon Snow cameo.) As director, Fiennes also seems to have taken instruction from some of his previous collaborators: the over-wrought action scenes find him doing his best Kathryn Bigelow impersonation (Barry Ackroyd, who shot The Hurt Locker , is the movie’s cinematographer), while the presentation of the Citizens as a very motley crew recalls the 2005 Deborah Warner production of Julius Caesar in which Fiennes played Mark Antony.
This tendency towards over-emphasis does result in admirably lucid story-telling, though. The film is thoughtfully paced and structured, with Coriolanus’s rejection of Rome taking place almost exactly at the movie’s mid-point. Hollywood’s favourite screenwriter-for-hire John Logan has done a skilful job of paring back (and simplifying) the text, although some elements and supporting roles do suffer the consequences of his tinkering. While Brian Cox is able to come through with a finely modulated performance as Menenius, the work of Paul Jesson and James Nesbitt as the conspiring tribunes ends up seeming obvious at times. And, more problematically, the association between Coriolanus and Aufidius (Gerard Butler, adequate) never quite strikes the sparks that it initially promises to. The homoerotic implications of the relationship which have been highlighted by some directors aren’t stressed here, although the movie does boast a slightly bizarre night-time sequence in which the Volscian camp seems momentarily to have morphed into a gay club.
The most genuinely exciting moments are those in which Fiennes stops proclaiming “Look! I’m making a MOVIE!” and opts for more sparsely staged scenes that allow Shakespeare’s language to do the work. Coriolanus then offers some memorably taut encounters, and some eloquent and expressive images, too. Fiennes’s scenes with Vanessa Redgrave’s strong, seductive Volumnia are especially fine; Redgrave (who gave even her hokey dialogue in Letters to Juliet  the weight she might give to a bit of prime Shakespearean verse) delivers her best screen performance in years as the ambitious, manipulative matriarch. And she and Fiennes look wonderful together - a pair of Roman statues in the making, indeed - their intense close-ups offering the thrill that the theatre can’t provide. Volumnia’s final supplication scene is brilliantly sustained - the movie’s highlight - and its impact mitigates some of the more questionable, obvious ideas that mar the film’s opening sections. This Coriolanus isn’t, overall, everything that it could have been. But at its best it’s a vivid and gripping account of this now seldom-staged play.