Three weeks ago, in a review I wrote about a theater production of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, I described the title character as a "Roman Rambo." That's how actor David Drummond played him—a sulking giant, lumbering around the stage. His anger was permanent and blunt. In Coriolanus-the-film, Ralph Fiennes plays a much sharper version of the soldier-hero whose bad temper gets him exiled and eventually kills him.
When this Coriolanus flies into a rage, his face turns purple, thick gobs of spittle fly out of his mouth, and he has to be physically restrained from killing whoever is in front of him. But he keeps his cool well enough to win tough battles and the respect of his enemies. As his one friend in the Roman political system ruefully says: "There is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger." Fiennes's Coriolanus is no dumb brute, he's a savage beast—less Rambo than Rommel.
Fiennes, who also directed the project, sets this Coriolanus in and around a place that calls itself Rome but looks more like a Hollywood version of Sarajevo. The city is festooned with barbed wire, colorful graffiti, and extras playing poor, angry people who resent their Roman overlords. Fiennes leans on the populist elements of the play, giving the Occupy movement a cameo. In the opening shots, protesters carrying signs with the Occupy fist march their way to an ass kicking, courtesy of Rome's SWAT teams.
Coriolanus is Shakespeare's action movie, and Fiennes has directed it that way: big explosions, macho knife duels, and urban-warfare sequences that look like shooter video games like Call of Duty. This Coriolanus is so fierce, in fact, we have trouble believing the tragic flaw that eventually lays him low—he's a mama's boy.
Vanessa Redgrave plays that fierce mama as bloodthirsty but stony, Lady Macbeth trapped in the body of a Roman grandma. In one exchange, Coriolanus's wife (a pale and delicate-looking Jessica Chastain) frets over her warrior husband. His mother says she's never happier than when he's out slitting throats and earning medals. "But had he died in the business, madam, how then?" the wife asks. The mother sets her icy gaze to stun and shoots back, "Then his good report should have been my son." Death before dishonor.
Ma Coriolanus convinced her little boy to become a soldier, a career track he eagerly leaped on. Midway through the play, she convinces him to join the senate, a career change he's less eager about. He hates the people, the people hate him, and soon he's trying to attack an entire mob, screaming that if they could, they would "break ope the locks of the senate and bring in the crows to peck at the eagles."
That kind of volcanic bile has no place in the public eye. (At least it didn't then—now it might get Coriolanus a job on Fox News.) Coriolanus is banished and goes on a misty, grubby walkabout to the bunker of his old arch nemesis—Aufidius, general of the Volscian army—to offer his services in an attack against Rome. I won't spoil the ending: There were gasps of surprise at the screening I attended.
With Coriolanus as his vehicle, Fiennes is not pulling a Kenneth Branagh, gyring about on the wings of Shakespearean poesy. He's made a grimy action film with mild political undertones and a few kick-ass one-liners from the most famous writer in the English language.