NEW YORK –– When your lead character proclaims, “The blood I drip is more medicinal than painful for me,” you know someone’s gonna get hurt. Or maybe hundreds.
Welcome to the big-screen treatment of William Shakespeare’s tragedy “Coriolanus” (Weinstein), a consistently brutal and violent film which, when not shedding blood, offers a searing commentary on power, betrayal and revenge.
Making his directorial debut, Ralph Fiennes also takes on the starring role as the Roman general originally called Caius Marcius. Personifying evil and megalomania seems to be second nature to Fiennes by now, having cut his teeth as Lord Voldemort in all those “Harry Potter” films.
Screenwriter John Logan (who also wrote 2000’s “Gladiator”) updates the drama’s setting from ancient Rome to an imaginary version of the same locale in the present day.
The Eternal City is torn by strife and street fighting, resembling a bombed-out Baghdad. The people are hungry and ready to riot. Marcius has saved Rome, once again, from its enemies. But the mob blames him for diverting supplies to feed his troops.
“Coriolanus,” however, is the antithesis of “Gladiator.” Marcius pays no attention to public opinion or the nascent forces of democracy. Peace makes him restless. He lives only to fight and protect the city he loves.
War flares again, and Marcius gets back to doing what he does best. This time it’s the Volscians who march on Rome, led by Marcius’ nemesis, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). The Volscians are vanquished in the town of Corioles, earning our anti-hero general a new moniker, Coriolanus.
Coriolanus’ redoubled fame inspires both Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), his viper of a mother, and scheming politician Menenius (Brian Cox). Together, they persuade Coriolanus to run for consul, harnessing social media and television in the effort. They see in him a messianic figure who could rule at will. (While they, of course, pull the strings.)
But his campaign goes disastrously awry. Before long, Coriolanus is accused of treason and disgraced — banished, ironically, from the city he once saved from destruction.
Suffice it to say, hell hath no fury like a warlord scorned. Revenge is in the cards, and Coriolanus thinks the Volscians just might be interested in his plans.
Which side wins in “Coriolanus,” good or evil? That’s a moral conundrum Shakespeare scholars have been trying to unravel for 500 years. One thing at least is certain: “Coriolanus” is not for the faint of heart.
The film contains intense and pervasive violence, including shootings, stabbings, explosions and torture. The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.