The voice is soft but insistent, the rage thunderous and the backdrop — war, famine, civil unrest — as familiar as the news. Like John Osborne’s 1970s version of the play, titled A Place Calling Itself Rome (which Fiennes gestures at early on), this is Shakespeare’s 17th-century tragedy as contemporary military story, if one that invokes Iraq and other modern theaters of war. And it works, partly because while the language remains Shakespeare’s, the rule of the mob, the political hypocrisies and the grinding of war’s engine transcend any age. Then, too, there’s the sheer pleasure of hearing these words spoken by an actor like Fiennes, whose phrasing is so brilliant that you might be tempted to close your eyes if his physical performance weren’t equally mesmerizing.
This adaptation, by John Logan, condenses and dispenses with sections of the original tragedy, one of Shakespeare’s Roman plays, coming in at a tight 122 minutes. At the story’s center are two violent twinned relationships, the first between Martius and the Roman citizens he despises (they "like nor peace nor war"), the second between Martius and his Volscian enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), whom Martius openly admires: "I sin in envying his nobility." Martius protects the citizens who are unlike him and fights the man who is most like him, the dangers of his attitude toward each suggested by the calls for his murder that bookend the play. This is part of his tragedy, as are the pride and disdain that lead him from the hero’s role to the monster’s.
Not long after the citizens storm the streets, Martius heads out to fight the Volscians. The possible scent of her son’s newly spilled blood sends Martius’s patriotic mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), into raptures. Blood, she enthuses to Martius’s stunned wife, Virgilia (Jessica Chastain), "more becomes a man than gilt his trophy."
It certainly becomes Fiennes’s fierce interpretation of Martius, his eyes shining in a face streaked in blood. Having created one brilliant villain with Voldemort in the Harry Potter series, Fiennes, his head shaved, summons up another by visually evoking the iconography of Marlon Brando’s in Apocalypse Now. Later, the character puts on a white shirt and suspenders, suggesting that the great Roman conqueror is nothing more than a common skinhead.
Martius’s destiny turns — brutally, suddenly. After routing the Volscians, though failing to kill Aufidius, Martius returns to Rome, where he is given the title of Coriolanus for his victory at a city he had taken. The honor comes with a price: he’s forced to play the people’s politician, a role for which he’s disastrously equipped. Done in by pride and by two scheming tribunes, Brutus (James Nesbitt) and Sicinius (Paul Jesson), Coriolanus falls from power, despite the advice of his mother and his friend Menenius (Brian Cox). Another she-wolf of Rome, Volumnia has kept count of Coriolanus’s wounds (she’d happily lick them), nurturing his fame. But she’s done her job too well. Her son has become a war machine that, enraged at Rome, now turns against it, joining with the Volscians.
Fiennes has made smart choices here, notably by surrounding himself with a strong secondary cast (the smaller roles are less successfully played), and by hiring the cinematographer Barry Ackroyd. Ackroyd, who shot The Hurt Locker, gives Coriolanus a visual density that complements the bright opulence of Martius’s mansion yet can pick faces out of the fog of war and the darkest shadows. (The sound mixer, Ray Beckett, also worked on The Hurt Locker, in which Fiennes had a small role.) Together they bring this world alive, closing the centuries-long distance between the writing of the play and this interpretation. The language lives, as do the people, who are present enough that it’s almost a surprise that no one brandishes that timely protest sign, "Occupy Rome."