Ralph Fiennes screen directorial debut opens with a knife being sharpened. The associated themes of violence - those who live by the sword die by the sword - and hunger - for food, for fair representation, for leadership that satisfies all comers - entwine within the body politic and persist throughout the tight two-hour "Coriolanus," now out on Blu-ray and DVD (which includes a short behind-the-scenes extra).
Fiennes also plays the scarred and highly successful warrior Caius Martius, who earns the title Coriolanus after conquering Corioli, but fails to win the hearts of the citizens in order to become consul, whom he bitterly calls "fragments." He’s a soldier who refuses to play politics, and is noted for his ruthlessness yet is expected to kowtow despite his track record.
After being characterized as a traitor by a capricious crowd, Coriolanus fulfills their dictate and becomes one. He joins forces to sack his home city with his Volscian enemy Tullus Aufidius, an imposing Gerard Butler, who appreciates that they both "hate alike."
The pair of warmongers not only shares military prowess and grisly kill tallies, but also a homoerotic attraction, shown in the film as a sensual scalp-shaving scene. Aufidius re-militarizes Coriolanus by removing the Samson-esque hair grown during his banishment. The barber chair then becomes Coriolanus’ ad hoc command chair when he integrates into the enemy camp.
Only the protestations of Coriolanus’ militaristic and manipulative mother Volumnia, a chillingly calculated Vanessa Redgrave, persuade Coriolanus to stop his proposed attack. She deftly weaves the "bellicose belly" themes into her resolve too, noting "anger’s my meat; I sup upon myself."
Since Coriolanus has shifted, Romney-like, his allegiances again, Aufidius plots his brief ally’s murder. At the end, a band of conspirators stab Coriolanus to death, adding to the "wounds his body bears, which show like graves i’ th’ holy churchyard."
Shakespeare’s last tragedy and last Roman play seems made for screen, propelled by short scenes crammed with dramatic conflict both emotional and physical. And, as with most of Shakespeare’s four-centuries-old work, the content is still topical, here as an erratic population rail against the senate and their direction. Coriolanus’ confidante, patrician Menenius Agrippa, a riveting and natural Brian Cox, counters that government nurtures and sustains the citizenry, as "the storehouse and the shop of the whole body."
Screenwriter John Logan expunges much of the text and verse from one of the Bard’s longest plays, removing any antiquated language such as "mountebank," changing "plumes" to "caps," and the like. The heightened language is missed, but seems to fit in the austere and embattled modern setting. Here in what seems to be Serbia, in "a place calling itself Rome" (but not in Italy), war-torn denizens are too shell-shocked to wax poetic.
The mise-en-scène offers a smoky gray palette; a counterpoint to the bleached yellow of its spiritual cousin "The Hurt Locker." Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd also employs that shaky-cam, war documentary style, interspersed with BBC-like conflict coverage and commentary, plus parliamentary proceedings.
Just as in the 2012 presidential election season, this electorate is fickle, unable to be satiated and mad as hell about it. Shakespeare cautions all candidates past and present that he "who deserves greatness deserves your hate."
Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack