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Ralph Fiennes tackles Shakespeare's 'Coriolanus'

The actor makes his feature film directorial debut with the rarely seen political drama, in which he stars as the Roman general.

November 27, 2011|By Sam Adams, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Actor Ralph Fiennes at the Toronto Film Festival in September.
Actor Ralph Fiennes at the Toronto Film Festival in September. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Toronto —

Like so many of the characters he's portrayed over the course of his decades-long career, the role Ralph Fiennes plays in his own feature film directorial debut, an adaptation of one of Shakespeare's more obscure plays, "Coriolanus," might be described as frightfully intense.

The title character of the Roman general is pressed by his mother to run for the Senate, but he resists any attempt to convert his wartime exploits into political gain. His people want to make him a hero, but he's perversely resistant to their admiration, going so far as to speak out against plans to distribute free corn in the midst of a famine.

To draw an analogy to a better-known late-model Shakespeare play, imagine King Lear with the stubbornly withholding Cordelia as its main character, the Roman public as the vainly demanding Lear.

But sitting down for an interview to discuss the film ahead of its September debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, Fiennes sounded rather uncharacteristically gleeful, barely concealing a grin as he held forth on "Coriolanus'" power to provoke.

"I viscerally enjoy the material," Fiennes said, choosing his adjectives wisely. "I love some of these lines: 'Let them not lick the sweet which is their poison.' There are these shock-value contempt lines. 'Go, get you home, you fragments!' I think Shakespeare must have had fun seeing how lines like that would land. To the groundlings, that would have been a provocation. I'm sure it would have been theatrically exciting, and sort of electric."

Fiennes, 49, shares with Shakespeare's hero a disdain for public exposure. The Oscar-nominated actor will talk only about his work, fiercely protecting his private life. Even on-screen, he doesn't reveal himself easily, preferring characters who keep their emotions under lock and key, whether the Nazi commandant Amon Goeth in "Schindler's List" or the slithering arch-villain Lord Voldemort in the "Harry Potter" franchise.

"Coriolanus" is hardly in Shakespeare's heavy rotation; it's infrequently performed and has never been filmed for the big screen. But Fiennes has a history with the character, going back to a 2000 production at London's Almeida Theatre. The intervening years haven't changed Fiennes' understanding of the play, but they've confirmed his faith in its contemporary resonance.

"The idea that I had that it was so relevant kept on being reinforced as I looked around me and watched the news," he said. "I just felt it was a play about now. I suppose you could say that about all of his plays. But it does seem that globally, economically, there's a lot of questioning going on about how we function. Everything is slip-sliding, falling apart; economies are breaking open. That's the premise of this play. And that's increased all the time I've been working on it."

Producer Gaby Tana says that part of Fiennes' tireless dedication to the project was rooted in his conviction that "Coriolanus" might be a play better served by the screen than the stage, where the character's anger and stubbornness are less easily mitigated. But the actor-director's conviction that "Coriolanus" is "a play about now" is underlined from the movie's opening shots of bombed-out buildings and troops in battle fatigues, not to mention the running narration delivered via flat-screen TV by British news anchor Jon Snow.

The setting, a caption informs us, is "a place calling itself Rome," which is also the title of an unproduced modern-day adaptation by playwright John Osborne ("Look Back in Anger").

Although Fiennes and writer John Logan pared back the play significantly, they retain Shakespeare's language, even if it's sometimes spoken by characters wielding BlackBerrys.

"Coriolanus" was shot in and around Belgrade, and its city streets choked with rubble vividly recall televised images of the former Yugoslavia's violent dissolution. The location also proved an unexpected boon when producer Tana brought in a Serbian investor to cover the shortfall after the financial meltdown took an American billionaire out of the project.

The original budget was halved, to $8 million, and the shoot confined to what Tana describes as a "brutal" eight weeks. But thanks in part to the cooperation of the Serbian government, which allowed the use of the country's military as extras, the battle scenes look as impressive as those of any action movie.

Its setting notwithstanding, Fiennes stresses that the film is meant to comment broadly on the modern condition rather than on any specific conflict.

"I feel very strongly that if you give 'Coriolanus' a strong political message, you're doing it a disservice," he said. "I think Shakespeare is asking you to, at the end, bear witness to this man's tragic demise. We see him trying to hold to a kind of truth, and tragically, ironically betraying everyone around him trying to hold to his true sense of himself."

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