My suspicion is that a lot of people would find this film version of Shakespeare’s CORIOLANUS to be tough going, and for a good ways into it, I was one of them. The early images struck me as heavy-handedly pacifist, modernized and uncoupled from Shakespeare, who is wise on the subject of war but hardly pacifist. They did little to situate what was happening in terms of the play itself.

But when Ralph Fiennes, as an elitist military hero playing populist champion, waded into the Roman crowd to hypocritically seek their approval, the film became interesting to me. Gone was the rote moralism of the early images; there instead was a drama of ethical contention and deceitful debate, a rumination on power, elitism, personal and national loyalty, political obligation, family ties, and hidden motivation. A return to actual violence is inevitable and will be critiqued in its most terrible forms, but not before Shakespeare’s language assaults us with its sources and philosophical justifications, as though to say that all brute force is preceded by a crudity of thought.

Fiennes, and Vanessa Redgrave, who plays his scheming mother, are two actors of whom I have always thought less than their reputations would seem to dictate. But they captivated me here, perhaps because their roles do not allow you to like them very much, yet insist in the end that they are human in spite of themselves. I was also taken, as I have been before, by Brian Cox, who at every turn exudes honest consternation as the ineffectual friend who faces a stoic end as the result of that very friendship.

This is a difficult play, and a harder film, which seems longer than it is and takes too many minutes to find itself, but I feel that I know it now, and value it, in a way that I did not before.

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