Fiennes gets savage in Shakespeare’s ‘Coriolanus’

by Giovanni Fazio

Special To The Japan Times

An angry mob of protesters waving banners and wielding bats advances on a government building protected by black-clad riot police. Hooded hotheads break open the gates and all hell breaks loose.

The scene looks as if it could have been filmed yesterday at an anti-austerity riot in Athens or an Occupy demonstration in Oakland, California. But then a figure emerges, a beret-clad scar-faced military man who strides up to the protesters and snarls: “What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues, that rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, make yourself scabs?”

Welcome to Ralph Fiennes’ “Coriolanus” (Japanese title: “Eiyu no Shomei”), the leanest, most savage adaptation of Shakespeare to ever hit the screen. For his directorial debut, the respected English actor takes one of the Bard’s more difficult plays and places it entirely in the contemporary world, full of flak-jacketed paramilitaries with automatic weapons, slick-suited politicians playing to the cameras, and a chorus of TV news flashes.

Fiennes had performed the role of Caius Martius Coriolanus — a Roman war hero who, brought down by political maneuvers, leads a rebel army against his city in revenge — in a stage production in London a decade ago, and the idea of a film version had lingered with him since. In an interview with The Japan Times, Fiennes describes how “I felt the audience could be brought a bit closer to the characters; I find myself often wanting to be close in on the faces of people, their nuances, the subtle shifts of thought and emotion — which you can’t get in the theater, obviously.”

You might suppose that Fiennes, an actor with an astoundingly long and varied resume — everything from the Oscar-winning “The English Patient” through Lord Voldemort in the “Harry Potter” series — would have earned the freedom to do a pet project by now, but the production was hard to get off the ground. “I’d feel scepticism from people,” says Fiennes of his attempts to pitch his self-directed project.

Was it viewed as a vanity project? “Well, no one would ever say that to my face, I suppose. But I’d see people raising their eyebrows in surprise. I think it was more about the Shakespeare challenge; Shakespeare has had an uncertain history commercially, on film — only a few have been successful. So that was the first concern — how will this little-known Shakespeare perform?”

Fiennes credits a screenplay by Hollywood regular John Logan (“Hugo,” “Gladiator,” “The Last Samurai”) as opening up some doors.

“He’s a very busy man, working alongside great directors like Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann. He’s in demand in Hollywood, so for him to pick my project like this, and write it on spec, felt like a real validation. He wrote a screenplay which really packed a punch; I think people were surprised, when they read the screenplay, at how accessible it was. It was a huge element in the film being made.”

The other punch came from the intense battle scenes that open the film: if you flicked on your TV late one night and saw Gerard Butler — best known for bellowing “This is Sparta!” in the blood-soaked “300″ — laying down machine-gun fire in a bombed-out urban environment, Shakespeare might not be the first thing that would come to mind. (Though Butler, as Coriolanus’ nemesis Aufidius, handles the wordplay capably, too.)

Much like Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” Fiennes’ Rome could be anywhere, everywhere. Fiennes calls it “the continual war that we’re all in, all the time, all over the world. This is an existential conflict to me. Shakespeare doesn’t explain why — it’s just that there’s a war going on.” By shooting his film in Belgrade, Fiennes notes how “I was aware the Bosnian conflict would feed into people’s sense of place, but it wasn’t meant to be an exact portrayal of that.” The director based the film’s look on a mass of conflict-zone imagery he collected, from Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq, and there’s even an echo of Col. Kurtz’s compound from “Apocalypse Now.”

The gritty intensity of the urban combat immediately brings to mind “The Hurt Locker,” a film Fiennes appeared in, but he doesn’t attribute any direct influence, musing that people might make the connection due to the fact that his director of photography was Barry Ackroyd, who also shot “The Hurt Locker,” and who brings a certain look. But beyond his war-movie resume, Fiennes found many reasons to love his cameraman’s input. “His instinctive composition is always thrilling, as is his ability to work in highly kinetic scenes of crowds and action sequences. He comes from a documentary background where he’s had to do it quickly, and get what’s happening in front of him, because it only happens once. We were very, very challenged by time, so that was a great attribute. He was open to my ideas, and at the same time I was learning a lot from him, about what lenses and the positions of the camera were doing.”

You can certainly make Shakespeare look like “Black Hawk Down,” but you can’t make it sound like it. When asked how he avoided making the verse sound archaic in such a contemporary setting, Fiennes muses: “I sometimes wonder (whether) Shakespeare’s language is archaic. Shakespeare was experimenting with language; he was pushing it, rephrasing it, sometimes creating words and sentence structures. But I wanted all of us, the actors, to inhabit the language conversationally. All the time I would say, ‘Make it simpler, make it simpler.’ But there was a skill too to the delivery, because we needed to be absolutely clear.”

To achieve this, Fiennes and Logan honed the script down to the bone over the course of a week. As Fiennes noted in an on-set interview, “We filleted out complicated, difficult passages. Mostly. I’ve kept some in. For some people they’ll be difficult, but I think it would be crazy to do this play and totally eviscerate some of the majestic moments and tough passages, which I think are stunning.

“I have a belief actually, that if you can deliver it naturally, even though the sentence structure might be challenging, Shakespeare’s writing is so extraordinary that you want to understand it. I have a faith that if it’s not bombastic or overly theatrical, which I think wrong-foots audiences’ ears, if it’s kept simple and natural, like conversations, then the response (will be) ‘Alright, I can understand it.’ “

The results are remarkable: actors like Brian Cox as the politically savvy senator Menenius, or Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’ imperious mother Volumnia, fly through their lines with ease and grace, yet give them an unmistakably 21st-century cadence. British Channel 4 TV presenter Jon Snow even turns up and delivers some verse in his usual dry newscaster’s voice. Shakespeare has rarely made it to the screen with so little artifice, and it’s a far cry indeed from the similarly “modern” approach in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film, “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet,” where Leonardo DiCaprio seemed to be reciting his lines from a teleprompter.

“Coriolanus” is very much a tale for our times; unlike nearly every war-hero film coming out of Hollywood these days, it’s quite distrustful of that magic word “democracy.”

“It’s very ambiguous,” says Fiennes. “There is no neat little message telling us how to think, how to behave, how to vote. Coriolanus is emphatically antidemocratic: He hates the confusion and chaos of the mob. But of course, this is how we are: shifting in our moods and opinions. Our constant challenge is to try and find some sense in everything, in the beliefs and principles we have, but we’re continually failing. I think Shakespeare identifies with the extreme integrity of Coriolanus, and he sees its danger. In the end there has to be some kind of compromise, some way forward. But I think this play is a cry of despair in a way.”

“Coriolanus” opens in cinemas nationwide from Feb. 25.