Adapting Shakespeare and making it work on screen is a difficult task, yet Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut succeeds with an element of greatness. The tale focuses on the Roman general Caius Martius, a successful soldier who lacks a gentle touch when it comes to the plebeians. Following a successful battle against Aufindius, the leader of the Volsces, at Corioles, Martius is awarded the surname Coriolanus and is persuaded by his mother to run for the consulship. But political intrigue sees him banished and seeking revenge.

While Shakespeare drew upon the true Roman story, Fiennes opts to update it and sets it in a modern day Roman Republic. The decision to relocate a story (here it seems to end up in a non-descript Eastern Europe) can backfire horrendously. Yet Fiennes, along with screen writer John Logan, have crafted a wonderful bit of cinema in doing so. I am not familiar with the original text, so perhaps there have been subplots missed out, but Coriolanus manages to keep the majesty of Shakespearean verse and also creates an entertaining war film.

Contrary to many adaptations of Shakespeare that I have seen, Coriolanus makes full use of film by including extended fight sequences that accelerate the pace. However, it does not ignore the original text and somehow manages to marry the bard’s words with the modern day setting. A word on the performances is needed since they all excelled. Fiennes in the eponymous role gave perhaps the best performance, but I feel the need to credit Gerard Butler with the best performance that I have ever seen him in. He does not always win me over in the roles he takes, but here he is fantastic and you really get a sense of Aufidius’ brutality with a touch of a more manipulative side.

Shakespeare does not appeal to all. The style of language can be difficult to access, and for many years I loathed him. Yet a really good version (as I think Coriolanus is) can make one of his plays really engaging. Despite this I felt at times that peoples’ reactions were over the top and were not coherent. Perhaps this is a problem with the play or even tragedies on the whole. This did lead me to get a bit confused, but Fiennes neatly includes news headlines of what is happening so the viewer is never lost for long. I heartily recommend seeing this, but I am aware it may not win over many Shakespeare sceptics. It is a great film and one sure to be acknowledged in the awards season. Go and see it, if for no other reason than a rather surprising Jon Snow delivering Shakespeare as a news reader.

James Townend

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