Coriolanus. Asked to name one of Shakespeare’s plays, it’s probably not the first one that springs to mind. One of Shakespeare’s final tragedies, and perhaps one of his least well known, Coriolanus has just this weekend been released in cinemas, directed, co-produced and lead by stage and screen actor Ralph Fiennes. The film has a strange aura surrounding it, primarily for its unusual merging of lesser known Shakespeare with popular art medium, and stage craft with film craft. It seems almost necessary to ask: why Coriolanus? Why choose this specific play to adapt to the popular film medium? And what happens when it is transferred across mediums, from play-text to film?

The play sits far from the great tragedies Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear, perhaps most distinctly in its divergence from the depth and interiority of the central characters of those plays. Coriolanus concerns itself more with the conflict of leaders and the masses, and the question of democracy is placed at the very heart of the play. At a time when democracy is repeatedly being questioned in both our country and across the world, this is a pertinent play.

For Fiennes to stage Coriolanus would be to reach out to an audience likely more familiar with the play, but to transpose it to the especially wide-reaching medium of film allows the play’s themes and issues to be conveyed to, firstly, a much larger audience, and secondly, to those less familiar with Shakespeare and perhaps less familiar with this play. With Fiennes’s name attached to the project, Coriolanus will surely be able to garner a certain amount of attention. A wise move to bring it to the screen?

It is hard not to observe the layering of screen upon screen within the film, as all of the characters watch each other’s wily moves through reports and video footage. There is, too, the film’s ability to capture the sense of unrest amongst large crowds of people. Here, film seems to lend Shakespeare’s play a helping hand, and reinforces its twenty-first century significance. But what happens to the play’s theatre life? And does it work on film?

Under the watchful eye of Fiennes, the title character’s stunning, lengthy speeches, not naturally transferrable to film, are delivered with a powerful stage presence which does not undermine the film medium. It is at these moments that stage and film seem to merge most beautifully. The final plea of the three women in Coriolanus’s life, led by stage and screen actor Vanessa Redgrave, is shown through a kind of stage blocking, but whilst noticeably theatrical it serves to up the emotional forces at work in this scene. Fiennes merges the techniques of two art mediums to reveal the strengths of both in directing and performing Shakespeare. Are we then left with a powerful theatrical film?

That strange aura which I suggested the film has appears to be something remarkably positive; something new, fresh and most of all engaging. With Coriolanus, Fiennes brings all manner of things to bear on Shakespeare’s play, resulting, in my view at least, in an out-of-the-ordinary, relevant and ultimately striking film. What are your thoughts?

Image by Ben Leto.