After Ralph Fiennes wrapped up his multi-film role as Voldemort with the 2011 conclusion to the Harry Potter series, he still had plenty of menace and intensity left over for a glowering, stoic turn in his directorial debut, Coriolanus. Adapted from a Shakespeare play, John Logan's script updates the setting from Republican Rome to the modern day, trading in swords and togas for assault rifles and business suits. The dialogue remains the same, and Fiennes leads a capable cast in a tale of a man built solely for war.
Amidst uprisings led by the rogue general Aufidius (Gerard Butler), Fiennes' Caius Martius is a military leader who, when it comes to the actual fighting, makes no distinction between soldier and officer. All put themselves at risk, or they'll be killed by Martius' hand as surely as the enemy's. Following a bloody victory against Aufidius, the general is given the surname Coriolanus, and pressured into transitioning his career from the military and into the political. Though he is often depicted staring down a mob of angry citizens, as he hates them for their fickle temperaments and insubstantial complaints of injustice when he and his men are bleeding for the state, he surrenders to the pleas of his proud mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) and Menenius, his ally in the Senate (Brian Cox). Worried about their potential marginalization if the decidedly undemocratic Coriolanus becomes consul, forces in the Senate rile the people up against him in an attempt to strangle his political career in its crib.
It's easy to imagine why Fiennes chose this lesser-known Shakespeare play to bring to the masses. He is uniquely suited to the lead role, and he executes it admirably, never missing a beat from overheated declaration to righteously indignant outburst. His Coriolanus is a puzzling and occasionally contradictory figure. Willing to shed as much blood as necessary for the state, he's completely unwilling to compromise on how he talks about that blood. There are repeated requests, from ally and foe, to show the people his many scars, and these are framed in such a way that they would solve all his problems, but that withholding is the one thing he wants to keep for himself. The state demands his pride as well as his body. In spite of this, Fiennes never makes Coriolanus an uncomplicated hero, as he feels intense, spittle-flinging hatred towards pretty much everyone. The state, and the people that compose it, can have his body, but they will not have his affection.
That distance, between fighting for a cause and fighting for glory, is what distinguishes Coriolanus from Aufidius. In one of Butler's better roles, his rebel general is the complete package. While not as supremely skilled as his rival, Aufidius has all the social skills Coriolanus lacks, with none of the resentment. For Coriolanus, the consul-ship, and the leadership that comes with it, is just the next step for successful generals like himself. For Aufidius, leading his people is pursued with their interests in mind, not simply his own. It's an antiquarian example of the Peter Principle in action. Coriolanus has spent his career rising, until he's promoted to a job he cannot do. Aufidius has yet to hit his ceiling, if it exists at all.
Shakespeare plays that are adapted into films have their hits and misses, but Coriolanus hits squarely. Much of the language is plain and straightforward, and Fiennes seems to ask his actors to play scenes bigger, which lends additional understanding. Some shaky cam techniques are frustrating, and combat scenes have plenty of disorienting cuts, but throughout, Fiennes' stark visage orients the viewer. He's playing it very big, up to the edge occasionally, but always captivating. This is the kind of adaptation that makes the viewer want to see the play, if only to hear Coriolanus booming out commands and admonitions in person. Fiennes sets the bar high for whatever actor steps into the general's boots. B