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On location in Belgrade, Serbia

Total Film

January 2012

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Ralph Fiennes gives Shakespeare’s brutal play a modern makeover full of star power. Total Film goes on set and treads carefully through the rubble.

Come awards season, you can always count on a good Shakespeare adap to cough up at least one or two performances worthy of Oscar affection. Such is the case with Ralph Fiennes’ directing debut Coriolanus. You wouldn’t invite them over for dinner, but the titular Roman military man and his forbidding patriotic mother Volumnia – as portrayed by Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave – make two of 2011’s most compelling screen characters, locked in a menacing symbiosis that’s as fascinating to watch as it is unsettling.

“As a story of power, politics and unbending wills of different personalities – Coriolanus, his mother, [enemy general] Aufidius – it has so many resonances to things that are happening now,” declares Fiennes. “The issues of pride, honour and authoritarian states, and eternal themes like family, mother and son, feel very relevant.”

Fiennes has a reputation for brooding intensity, and meeting him on the Serbian set of Coriolanus does nothing to dispel the notion. Sitting opposite Total Film in his trailer, near the bombed-out husk of what was once Belgrade’s diplomatic nightlife hotspot before NATO shells took their toll, his character’s appearance certainly cries ferocious passion. His head is shaved, his face caked in rivulets of fake blood and he’s wearing the camouflage-patterned battle uniform of a proud military hero whose status as his city’s beloved saviour unravels after his tyrant’s attitude explodes into public view.

“Coriolanus is tough to like,” admits Fiennes, “but that’s exactly why I like him. He’s a tragic figure, but tragic figures don’t have to be likeable. But what was interesting in my experience of playing him on stage was that audiences, against their initial instinct, start to sympathise with him because they see that he’s just trying to hold to his own truth. It’s like the character Daniel Day-Lewis played in There Will Be Blood – hard to like but compelling. Coriolanus is a lost boy in a man’s body.”

The play itself is one of Shakespeare’s most obscure and least performed, but Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan have given it a vivid, visceral modern-day overhaul, spiced up by the Balkan setting and some Hurt Lockeresque camera moves (courtesy of DoP Barry Ackroyd), all the while managing to avoid anachronism despite clinging to the Bard’s glorious original verse.

Listening to it flow off the tongues of Fiennes and his co-stars (Gerard Butler excepted – although he still makes a mean, moody Aufidius) is a genuine treat, and a lesson in how to keep Shakespeare relevant. Fiennes has done himself proud his first time behind the camera – and somehow keeps his wits enough to deliver a mighty performance along with it.

After being banished, the bitter, bilious Coriolanus links up with his former sworn enemy Aufidius to launch an assault on Rome – leading to the film’s signature scene, the moment that his estranged wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) and mother come to beg the Big C to spare the city he once stoutly defended. Except in Volumnia’s case, she doesn’t really do begging and… well, let’s just say that a mother’s stern, abiding love is a forceful thing. As played by this pair of expert Shakespearean practitioners and previous Oscar candidates (Fiennes: two noms, no wins; Redgrave: six noms, one win), it’s the spine-chilling sequence that should bring them both an avalanche of awards-season love.

“It’s been extremely tough,” Fiennes tells us on set about the challenges of trying to act and direct simultaneously. “There are days when it feels seamless and days when it feels crazy. It was always a two-headed creature in my mind because I wanted to play the part and I had a very strong idea of what the film should be. And I have never regretted it…”

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