By Christine Lewis
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Issue 365

Ralph Fiennes’s modern film adaptation of Coriolanus is a masterstroke. One of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, Coriolanus has attracted attention from a surprising range of directors including Bertolt Brecht – and it’s easy to see why. Class struggle, war, power and leadership are themes relevant to both Elizabethan and contemporary audiences.

Filmed in Belgrade, a place of high-rise tenement blocks, urban decay and busy street markets, this adaptation unfolds in an alternative present, where the city, “a place calling itself Rome”, is meant to “reflect any city anywhere in the world”. The city is at war with the neighbouring Volsci, while at the same time Roman citizens are rebelling against their rulers.

The narrative revolves around the figure Caius Martius, a revered and feared Roman general. Having proved his skill in battle by conquering the Volscian city of Corioli, he is awarded the honorary title of Coriolanus. His mother Volumnia persuades him to stand for consul. But Coriolanus is proud and arrogant. He reveals his contempt for the people, refusing to appeal to them for support. The ensuing revolt, whipped up by tribunes who represent the people, results in his banishment from Rome. He reacts by joining the Volsci rebels and preparing to lead an attack on Rome.

For many whose experience of Shakespeare remains confined to classroom texts this translation to film should come as a welcome development. The medium works well in keeping to Shakespeare’s intentions of relating to the concerns of the popular audience in an accessible way.

The film uses “breaking news” TV broadcasts to great effect – Jon Snow uses Shakespeare’s language to report on the political events as they develop. However, scenes set in a TV studio reminiscent of Newsnight or Question Time stretch this idea too far. The play itself tends to show the ordinary people being manipulated by the devious tribunes, rather than pursuing their own aims. This portrayal of the people as an unthinking mass is retained in this adaptation.

Nonetheless, Fiennes’s potent and commanding interpretation of Coriolanus and Vanessa Redgrave’s compelling portrayal of Volumnia relentlessly drive the narrative forward. Raw and hardhitting, this film is a powerful portrayal of the dynamics of leadership where loyalty, love and compassion become casualties of war in the pursuit of power and revenge. Not to be missed.

Coriolanus is directed by Ralph Fiennes and is released 20 January

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