Review - Power and pride: a tale for today

27th January 2012 at 00:00
Coriolanus is in cinemas now

On a balcony, an elderly woman in black stands frozen, her chin quivering, as bullets fly around her.

Shakespeare did not write this many bullets into Coriolanus. In fact, Coriolanus, the least-known of his Roman plays, is filled with togas and daggers, but no bullets at all.

Ralph Fiennes' film version updates the action to a Rome that looks a lot like Serbia (literally: it was filmed there). And right from the bullet-filled outset, it works beautifully.

Belying the Elizabethan English, Coriolanus speaks a visual language that is instantly contemporary and familiar. Men in military fatigues, with foreign-sounding names, give interviews to camera. Jon Snow - speaking in pentameter - presides over a studio debate.

This is a testosterone-soaked version of Rome, where men trade dagger blows with phallic intensity. It is a Rome where power is all, and power is slippery. A Rome, therefore, exactly as Shakespeare imagined it.

War-scarred general Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes), however, is unwilling to pursue power if it means courting the goodwill of the people. He is too proud for democracy, and we all know what pride precedes. "Fragments!" he spits at the populace, with more disgust than most people cram into more conventional F-words.

The one person he does like, however, is his mother (Vanessa Redgrave). This relationship is played with post-Freudian knowingness: it is the urge to become the man his mother wants him to be that has driven Coriolanus to succeed. And it is what will drive him to his doom.

Specifically, it leads him to Tullus Aufidius, an enemy rebel with whom he can wreak revenge on the ungrateful Roman people. Aufidius (Gerard Butler) and Coriolanus share a hatred born of deep respect: seeing Coriolanus defect, says Aufidius, makes him happier than he was on his wedding night. Yes, there is sexual tension with his mother. There is sexual tension with his arch-enemy. There is, however, no sexual tension at all with his wife (who, to be fair, has about three lines).

Coriolanus may not be a Hamlet or even a Julius Caesar, but it should not be underestimated. This seamless, meticulously thought-out adaptation proves that a Jacobean play about ancient Rome can be entirely relevant to a modern audience.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today