Coriolanus may not be among Shakespeare’s best-known plays but it is one of the Bard’s most tragic, violent and thematically fraught… ideal fodder for intense British actor Ralph Fiennes (Harry Potter, Shindler’s List, The English Patient) to adapt for contemporary audiences.
In Coriolanus - his directorial debut which opens today - Fiennes places Shakespeare’s Elizabethan dialog into a modern setting to tell the tale of a proud and heroic general who refuses to play nice with the great unwashed.
Sadly for Coriolanus (also played by Fiennes), his taciturn nature is mistaken for hubris and he is banished from his Roman environs by an angry mob. Furious and disenchanted, Coriolanus joins forces with his (and Rome’s) sworn enemy to exact revenge on those who cavalierly cast him out.
Also starring Gerard Butler as Coriolanus’s nemesis-cum-ally plus sudden ‘it’ girl Jessica Chastain and Vanessa Redgrave, Coriolanus is just the kind of meaty, dramatic heavyweight that commands notice during award season, a point not lost on a small handful of international journalists (and moi!) invited to chat with the articulate and gracious Fiennes during TIFF last September, where the movie was screened.
Some highlights of that interview:
On having his actors recite Shakespearean dialog despite being placed in a modern setting:
“It’s been done before. I was once in a production of Julius Caesar that was all modern dress. To my ear, there is something quite potent about people speaking in a fantastically expressive form of drama [but existing] in a world of suits and mobile phones. Shakespeare’s writing is thrilling and challenging and moving and sexy and I love that mix.”
On the offbeat choice of play when Hamlet and Macbeth are so much more familiar to audiences:
“I just really love the play and the part. It seems really pertinent all the time. The themes of authority, integrity, nationalism, the people’s right to be heard are constant conflicts. And I felt this play is the world we’re in.”
On acting in and directing the same movie:
“Clearly it’s been done before and some actors seem already on the edge of doing it. I am very alert to choices that directors are making and very attuned to things like camera angles. I know some actors just want to be the part but I can’t help having a great curiosity about how it’s being put together.”
On casting Gerard Butler who, post-300, has seemed positively eager to make crappy rom-coms (and yeah, the question was phrased like that to Fiennes):
“I needed to have a convicting antagonist, someone who could challenge me in every sense with their on-screen charisma. So we sent him a script and he liked it. I did not know him prior [to this film]. I also wanted a movie star; the whole package was really strong. And funny enough, it turned out that his first job was a production of Coriolanus. He walked on with a spear.”
On casting Jessica Chastain who is everywhere in 2011 and 2012:
“I had a tip that she was electric. I was actually afraid that she would be wowed by a Scorsese or Cronenberg and Speilberg and I wouldn’t stand a chance. But she stayed true – and it took 18 months to put this film together. She has extraordinary depth and translucence.”
On the easiest and hardest decision made during filming/editing:
“The easiest decision was casting Vanessa Redgrave and the hardest was probably editing and losing things. They say you have to kill your darling and I had a time constraint contractually. And the funny thing is, they were tiny cuts… not even big scenes but very meaningful bits.”
On the likelihood of the audience switching sides during the film:
“That’s absolutely fantastic; I love that the audience don’t know where to put their allegiance. I would be very reluctant to say to the audience.’ You must like this person and hate this person.’”