Playing Voldemort has done wonders for Ralph Fiennes’ acting. No longer burdened with projecting warmth, for which he has neither talent nor forbearance, he can concentrate on the lethal hatred he can squeeze out of his impenetrable blue eyes. Making his directorial debut in John Logan’s adaptation of Coriolanus, Fiennes emphasizes the lacquered, oblong surfaces of his bald head, a relic of the hours spent playing He Who Must Not Be Named in the Harry Potter multiverse. Coriolanus, “not schooled in graceful language,” excels only at spilling blood, beside which the pleasures of the hearth like wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) and a son pales, not when he boasts Virgilia (Vanessa Redgrave), a mother whose own monomania is her ecstatic tally of the wounds on Coriolanus’ body, of the men he’s killed for Rome’s sake.
The texture of pre-millennial CNN footage of Srebrenica or Kosovo suffuses this update, in which Fiennes in camouflage fatigues and beret, evoking memories of General Mladić, kills everything in sight, shrugging off wounds like an Avenger. Or like praise from his countrymen. A patrician warrior so proud that he cannot stomach flattery, Corialanus is sickened when reminded of what he knows already; the love of the people, with their bad breath and sickly miens, disgusts him. The paradox that Shakespeare explores is how a man this duty-bound subverts the Republic to which he has devoted his life. He could be a model — a statue worthy of veneration — if politics repelled him less. Fiennes and Logan’s movie understands this. “Must I with base tongue give my noble heart/A lie that it must bear?” Coriolanus cries during one anguished moment.
Easily his finest acting since Quiz Show, Fiennes honors Shakespeare’s conception: he offers no concessions, does not soften Corialanus’ unpleasantness (the famous insult “Triton of the minnows” becomes as intimate as a sonnet). Although Chastain is wan and wilted in the manner of other young actresses cast in modern Shakespearean adaptations (e.g. Irene Jacob in Othello, Julia Stiles in Hamlet), Vanessa Redgrave brings such demotic ease to the verse that her lyric power is astounding in its purity; you understand why she dresses Coriolanus’ wounds and not his wife, why the consuls regard her as a last resort when their would-be hero joins forces with their worst enemy. Brian Cox and Gerard Butler are fine in smaller roles.
The film falters after Coriolanus’ exile; it stops when he tries to find his bearings in Aufidius’ camp. Fiennes’ good instincts for editing wilt. But the shrewdness with which Fiennes stages Coriolanus’ death — it presages what will befall the Republic when another putative icon named Julius Caesar is assassinated — made me wish for Shakespeare movies this alive and so attuned to historical crisscrosses.