AFTER Ralph Fiennes starred in Coriolanus on the London stage over a decade ago, he was left with a nagging feeling of unfinished business.
So his decision to revisit the role on film – making his directorial debut at the same time – might well complete a personal journey but then we all get to enjoy the ride in what is a fast and furious political thriller giving us Shakespeare that we can all connect with.
It has the relevant ingredients, after all: political divisions and spin, a leader out of touch with the people, unrest and the threat of uprising.
Making it even more real and relevant to today’s world is the inspired decision to set the film in Serbia, Fiennes’s bloody general drawing obvious parallels with a Balkan warlord. Modern gadgetry and rolling news footage (there’s an appearance by Jon Snow of Channel 4 News) help to smooth out the difficulties of Shakespeare’s – heavily cut – text.
Hand-held cameras capture frenetic scenes of jumpy crowds and war-torn streets and bring us up close to bloody combat with exploding shells and a shaven-headed Fiennes dripping blood (and resembling his Voldemort character in Harry Potter).
The former RSC star (in Newcastle 20 years ago in Troilus and Cressida) delivers an acting tour-de-force as the questionable military hero who fatally refuses to pander to the public and whose alliance with former enemy Tullus (Gerard Butler) crumbles in the face of an impassioned speech by his mother Volumnia.
Here, Vanessa Redgrave, as the proud matriarch, is as fine as ever, as is Brian Cox as old pal Menenius. Their scenes, set in the contrasting calm of the family home, where Coriolanus is equally out of step, or over whisky in smoky bars, also show how Shakespeare’s powerful stories can be told through film.
Fiennes follows on the heels of other leading Shakespearean actors such as Sir Ian McKellen and Kenneth Branagh who also starred in or directed ambitious and imaginative film versions of Shakespeare plays.
In 1993 Branagh did both at the helm of Much Ado About Nothing which proved a cinematic triumph.
The actor, who’d made his directorial debut in the film version of his Henry V, co-starred in Ado with then wife Emma Thompson and they were joined by an unlikely cast including Richard Briers, Brian Blessed, Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves.
The caper, set in a sun-drenched 19th Century Tuscany, began with a nod to The Magnificent Seven in a striking horseback scene.
Then in 1995 we saw McKellen transfer his stage success in Richard III to the big screen.
The film of the National Theatre production, which followed the stage version to Newcastle, mixed power and politics to dramatic effect with a 1930s setting and McKellen as a uniformed fascist.
Years earlier Sir Laurence Olivier led the way with his first foray into Shakespeare on film: his famous Henry V.
Britain’s then greatest actor starred in and directed the patriotic 1944 film, which was shot in Ireland because of the London Blitz damage.
It might look dated now, especially when compared with the here-and-now feel of Fiennes’s film, but it was relevant during the war when, with its gutsy leading actor and rallying St Crispen’s Day speech, it boosted morale at a time when that was badly needed.
:: Coriolanus opens tomorrow at selected venues and at Tyneside Cinema from January 27.