Screens at CIFF: 10/13
World premiere: 14 February, 2011, Berlin Film Festival

Ralph Fiennes does not, evidently, lack for bravery: the actor's directorial debut is a Shakespearean adaptation, and one in which he, himself, plays the lead role; and it is, just to make things extra-fun, the first-ever feature version* of one of the author's most obscure plays (insofar as anything Shakespeare wrote is "obscure"), Coriolanus. The least-known and most political of the three "Roman Plays", after Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra, it is the ostensibly fact-based story of 5th Century BCE general Caius Martius, surnamed "Coriolanus" after his great victory over the Volscian army at Corioli. A military genius, Coriolanus is also a complete dick, and between his autocratic handling of a food shortage brought about because of the war, and his obnoxiously haughty attitude immediately after the battle combine to make pretty much everybody in Rome despise him. Spurned by his people, he immediately hops sides and swears fealty to his onetime arch-enemy, Volscian commander Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). Shit gets bad from there.

Since an act of Parliament sometime back in the '70s made it illegal to stage Shakespeare's plays in the actual historical context which the author had in mind, Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan (who, I am growing convinced, has the weirdest career of any major screenwriter - this year also sees him with Rango and Hugo, just for starters) set the action in an undefined version of the modern day: the location names remain identical, but it's pretty damned obvious that this is actually meant to be against the backdrop of the Wars on Terror, with the urban battlefield in which Coriolanus bleeds and kills looking close enough to Baghdad that it's hardly worth insisting that it's actually "Rome". And just to make absolutely certain that we do not miss the connection, Fiennes is working with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, who has essentially defined what "war movies in Iraq" get to look like nowadays, following his iconic work on The Hurt Locker (and kind of Green Zone, but that was basically just a visual retread of the earlier film), and Coriolanus looks not so much like it was influenced by that film as it directly and exactly copies that film. If this means that Fiennes merely took lots and lots of advice from his friend Kathryn Bigelow (with whom he has made multiple films, including... The Hurt Locker), or if it means that Ackroyd basically directed the visuals while Fiennes worked with the actors, I leave as an exercise for the conspiracy nuts.

Nobody could be more surprised than I that this modernisation actually works pretty damn well, not just for how it satirises the American military machine as the toy of greedy monsters, but for how well it grounds Shakespeare's drama in an easily understood modern-dress context. There are the usual problems of lines of speech that have to be twisted into awkward shapes to not scream with anachronisms, but nothing so enthusiastically artificial as in, say, Baz Luhrmann's MTV-style Romeo + Juliet.

Which is not to say that the film is without its problems, for in fact there is a fairly pervasive one: the well-stocked cast of famous British people (as well as Jessica Chastain, whose sudden ubiquity is not, alas, the same as an English dramatic education) simply isn't that good, which makes absolutely no sense. And I will immediately exempt Fiennes, who is quite good at playing the character as all snarls and growls - an obvious performance, but the character isn't one of Shakespeare's most subtle - and Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus's hawk-like mother Volumnia. Redgrave in particular is at her best in several years playing the character as Fiennes and Logan conceive her, which is not necessarily the same way that Shakespeare did; there are just enough snips here and there to suck out even the last indication that the warmongering harpy with a skeletal face (Fiennes and Ackroyd make outstanding use of the fact that Redgrave is old in making her character look absolutely dessicated) wants to fuck, or indeed is fucking, her son. Which to me robs the play of its most interesting psychology, but you can't have everything.

But aside from those two key players, it's uniformly flat: Butler isn't doing anything besides mirroring Fiennes's growliness, Chastain looks pensive, and the big shock is that Brian Cox, theoretically the best-trained member of the cast after Redgrave, doesn't apparently have any ideas at all, playing the weaselly senator Menenius as any random, craven bad guy. Two good performances, even two great performances, does not a great Shakespearean film make, though there's enough good going on visually and conceptually that Coriolanus still works; but not nearly as well as it could.

I'll say this on its behalf: if we are going to have more damn Shakespeare pictures, at least this one isn't nearly as over-done as Romeo and Juliet (newest version due in 2012) or King Lear (due in 2012 with Al Pacino in the role of Lear, despite the fact that last I heard, Ian McKellen wasn't dead). Not that obscurity alone is a merit in Shakespearean movies - I'll be the first one to not see The Two Gentlemen of Verona if they ever do a film version - but in the particular case of Coriolanus, its obscurity has nothing to do with its significant merits as a play and as literature, and if the film only serves to draw attention to the original, it will be doing the Lord's work.

*As with all of the Bard's work, it has been given the BBC treatment once or twice.