The world is dark and getting darker: a review of Ralph Fiennes’ “Coriolanus”

“He was a kind of nothing,” one envoy reports after trying to stop the banished Caius Martius Coriolanus from turning his wrath on Rome.

Ralph Fiennes brings a blazing intensity to his role as Coriolanus (Fiennes also directed), but he never quite brings the man to life — and that’s because the general in Shakespeare’s tragedy never seems fully alive.

The dark palate of the film reinforces this impression, as does the harrowing soundtrack, punctuated with gunfire and screams.

Coriolanus seems most alive near the beginning of the film, as — blood-drenched — he engages in brutal urban combat and a knife fight with Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), who is leading the Volscian uprising against Rome. “Every gash was an enemy’s grave,” his ally Menenius says of the general’s many scars.

As the Consul Cominius later tells the senators who are about to choose Coriolanus as his successor: “He was a thing of blood, whose every motion /
Was timed with dying cries.”

Coriolanus’ political ambitions are thwarted by intrigue, as the two tribunes (played effectively by James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson) sway public opinion against the newly installed Consul, whose arrogance and disdain for the common people seem to ooze — no, blaze — from every pore.

And that’s part of the puzzle of Coriolanus — he’s so disdainful while seems at times to be humble about his own accomplishments. But he doesn’t really see his actions as accomplishments — his nihilistic embrace of violence leads to a world where almost nothing is worthwhile. Not the commoners, and not himself. That’s not humility, that’s desolation.

It’s the same burning hate that we see in Iago at various points, and in Macbeth as his death nears.

But Coriolanus lacks the psychological complications of Othello or Macbeth. Granted, there are some tantalizing moments that seem to promise deeper explanations for the scarred general’s behavior, like in one scene the overly tender touch of his mother (Vanessa Redgrave, brilliant as one would expect) and later the homoeroticism of the Volscian rebels as he leads them to Rome. But at the end of the film there’s little to hang on to.

Coriolanus is a dark figure when the movie opens, and he just gets darker. “There is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger,” Menenius says, not long before he himself commits suicide.

The best moments are those when the political intrigue is sharpest, when Coriolanus offers his help in hate to the Volscians, when Brian Cox’s Menenius realizes that his Rome is unraveling. And anytime Vanessa Redgrave is on screen.

But those many moments are overshadowed by the brutality of the play — and by the choices that make the film even more brutal.

Updating the story to a dark version of the present day works well for the most part, although some elements — like the many times bystanders use their cellphone cameras — are distracting. And the crowd scenes never achieve the epic scale necessary to reflect the people’s rejection of Coriolanus’ rule. It’s as if the same couple of dozen discontented commoners have been given inordinate power.

I admire Fiennes and his team for wanting to make this film, but interested viewers should know that they’re diving deep when they enter the theater. And they might not come all the way back up.