Ralph Fiennes's 'Coriolanus' Modernizes Shakespeare

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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 "boy of tears."

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, "There are things that happen behind the eyes that you can't get onstage." 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. "It could be anywhere, but it also has these brutal undercurrents of Yugoslavian history, which I knew would play into the atmosphere of the film," 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 "unbuckling helms, fisting each other's throats," and their face-to-face encounters onscreen are electrifying. One fight has all the meaty, grappling intimacy of a Francis Bacon painting—"It's about these entwined bodies," Fiennes says. "Male affection and rivalry twisting around each other."

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. On one Belgrade location Butler could be heard roaring obscenities of frustration, but Fiennes, hunched behind the monitor, was gently cajoling. "That's great, Gerry, don't lose that focus," he urged, until finally the lines were sounding unforced. "He came in with a raggedness, which was exciting," Fiennes said later, "But then, in the last few takes, he used it and refined it. It was a real process."

It's only recently that Fiennes began thinking seriously about directing. "You need a very strong inner conviction if you're going to put yourself out there." Subconsciously, he's been assimilating filmmaking techniques throughout his acting career, but it was not until 2004, when working with Fernando Meirelles on The Constant Gardener, that "this voice in my head became stronger." He found himself liberated by Meirelles's collaborative, improvisatory approach, and fascinated by the intense relationship between him and his cinematographer, César Charlone. Fiennes has tried to reproduce that kind of collaboration on Coriolanus with Barry Ackroyd, the cinematographer who won an Oscar for his work on The Hurt Locker. At first "entirely dependent" on Ackroyd, Fiennes grew in confidence as he learned how to express what he wanted in technical terms. "There was an incredible and immediate linkage between Barry's eye looking down the lens and me," he says.

Logan, screenwriter on the new James Bond movie Skyfall, in which Fiennes has a minor role, is convinced that Fiennes has a future as a film-maker, and they are already planning their next collaboration.

"Great directors are like great conductors: they have to bring the best out of each section of the orchestra, and I saw him do that with every one of his cast and crew." Fiennes drew on his protean skill as an actor to create different moods for different situations: Brian Cox (Menenius) described the atmosphere on set as "searing—never less than the temperature of white heat," whereas Vanessa Redgrave was inspired by Fiennes's "quiet and calm personal authority" to access extraordinary depths of feeling. Fiennes's passion for the project was so infectious that core members of the Coriolanus production team are reuniting for his next movie.

However consuming his trajectory as a filmmaker proves to be, Fiennes says that he will never abandon the theater. Few actors move with such ease between the two genres, and he thrives on the cross-fertilization, intermingling the reticence of film with heightened moments of theatrical bravura. To Jonathan Kent, who directed his Hamlet, Richard II, Coriolanus, and Oedipus, Fiennes is entering an exciting new phase as an actor as well as director. "Ralph always had every technique at his fingertips, but now it's something he can let go. He's coming into his own, and it's wonderful to see."