Shaking Up Shakespeare

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Byline: Julie Kavanagh

Ralph Fiennes's passion project and directorial debut, 'Coriolanus,' modernizes The Bard.

Ralph Fiennes is known for making unpredictable choices as an actor.

If he is best remembered as the fleshy and sadistic Nazi officer in Schindler's List, the grand romantic lead in The English Patient, or the malevolent Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series, his range onstage is just as impressive. In London this summer as an unusually young Prospero in The Tempest, he gave a multilayered performance that established him as an astoundingly natural Shakespearean actor. Now Fiennes has taken on a far greater challenge: the title role in a new film of Coriolanus, which he has directed himself. The result is groundbreaking--a violent, fast-moving, modern interpretation of an unfamiliar Shakespeare tragedy.

The story focuses on the fatal rivalry between a Roman general named Caius Martius Coriolanus and his Volscian enemy, Tullus Aufidius. With its background of mob violence and warring factions of plebians and patricians, the play has been staged in the past as political propaganda. Fiennes, however, brings out the domestic drama at its core--the intense bond between Coriolanus and his mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave). This heroic, uncompromising soldier, embarrassed by public adulation and incapable of winning votes though false servility ends up as no more than a vulnerable Aboy of tears.A

After his 2000 performance in the role on the London stage, Fiennes found himself increasingly obsessed by the untapped potential of Coriolanus, convinced that it would have far more power onscreen.

Asked what drew him to the project as both actor and director, Fiennes says, AThere are things that happen behind the eyes that you can't get onstage.A Screenwriter John Logan shared Fiennes's enthusiasm, and their collaboration turned an obscure Shakespeare play into a political thriller. After being put on hold following the financial meltdown, the project was picked up by three producers and finally shot in the spring of 2010 in Belgrade--a city that provided Fiennes with low production costs and the anonymous modern setting he was after. AIt could be anywhere, but it also has these brutal undercurrents of Yugoslavian history, which I knew would play into the atmosphere of the film,A he says.

The love-hate relationship between Coriolanus and Aufidius (Gerard Butler) is the other emotional axis of Coriolanus. The homoerotic undertones are there in Shakespeare's text as they dream of Aunbuckling helms, fisting each other's throats,A and their face-to-face encounters onscreen are electrifying. One fight has all the meaty, grappling intimacy of a Francis Bacon painting--AIt's about these entwined bodies,A Fiennes says. AMale affection and rivalry twisting around each other.A

His main aim for the film was to be relevant and accessible today, which meant reining in Shakespeare's language to make it as direct as ordinary conversation. …