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Ralph Fiennes tackles Shakespeare’s ‘Coriolanus’

Reporting from Toronto —

Like so many of the characters he’s portrayed over the course of his decades-long career, the role Ralph Fiennes plays in his own feature film directorial debut, an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s more obscure plays, “Coriolanus,” might be described as frightfully intense.

The title character of the Roman general is pressed by his mother to run for the Senate, but he resists any attempt to convert his wartime exploits into political gain. His people want to make him a hero, but he’s perversely resistant to their admiration, going so far as to speak out against plans to distribute free corn in the midst of a famine.

To draw an analogy to a better-known late-model Shakespeare play, imagine King Lear with the stubbornly withholding Cordelia as its main character, the Roman public as the vainly demanding Lear.

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But sitting down for an interview to discuss the film ahead of its September debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, Fiennes sounded rather uncharacteristically gleeful, barely concealing a grin as he held forth on “Coriolanus’” power to provoke.

“I viscerally enjoy the material,” Fiennes said, choosing his adjectives wisely. “I love some of these lines: ‘Let them not lick the sweet which is their poison.’ There are these shock-value contempt lines. ‘Go, get you home, you fragments!’ I think Shakespeare must have had fun seeing how lines like that would land. To the groundlings, that would have been a provocation. I’m sure it would have been theatrically exciting, and sort of electric.”

Fiennes, 49, shares with Shakespeare’s hero a disdain for public exposure. The Oscar-nominated actor will talk only about his work, fiercely protecting his private life. Even on-screen, he doesn’t reveal himself easily, preferring characters who keep their emotions under lock and key, whether the Nazi commandant Amon Goeth in “Schindler’s List” or the slithering arch-villain Lord Voldemort in the “Harry Potter” franchise.

“Coriolanus” is hardly in Shakespeare’s heavy rotation; it’s infrequently performed and has never been filmed for the big screen. But Fiennes has a history with the character, going back to a 2000 production at London’s Almeida Theatre. The intervening years haven’t changed Fiennes’ understanding of the play, but they’ve confirmed his faith in its contemporary resonance.

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“The idea that I had that it was so relevant kept on being reinforced as I looked around me and watched the news,” he said. “I just felt it was a play about now. I suppose you could say that about all of his plays. But it does seem that globally, economically, there’s a lot of questioning going on about how we function. Everything is slip-sliding, falling apart; economies are breaking open. That’s the premise of this play. And that’s increased all the time I’ve been working on it.”

Producer Gaby Tana says that part of Fiennes’ tireless dedication to the project was rooted in his conviction that “Coriolanus” might be a play better served by the screen than the stage, where the character’s anger and stubbornness are less easily mitigated. But the actor-director’s conviction that “Coriolanus” is “a play about now” is underlined from the movie’s opening shots of bombed-out buildings and troops in battle fatigues, not to mention the running narration delivered via flat-screen TV by British news anchor Jon Snow.

The setting, a caption informs us, is “a place calling itself Rome,” which is also the title of an unproduced modern-day adaptation by playwright John Osborne (“Look Back in Anger”).

Although Fiennes and writer John Logan pared back the play significantly, they retain Shakespeare’s language, even if it’s sometimes spoken by characters wielding BlackBerrys.

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“Coriolanus” was shot in and around Belgrade, and its city streets choked with rubble vividly recall televised images of the former Yugoslavia’s violent dissolution. The location also proved an unexpected boon when producer Tana brought in a Serbian investor to cover the shortfall after the financial meltdown took an American billionaire out of the project.

The original budget was halved, to $8 million, and the shoot confined to what Tana describes as a “brutal” eight weeks. But thanks in part to the cooperation of the Serbian government, which allowed the use of the country’s military as extras, the battle scenes look as impressive as those of any action movie.

Its setting notwithstanding, Fiennes stresses that the film is meant to comment broadly on the modern condition rather than on any specific conflict.

“I feel very strongly that if you give ‘Coriolanus’ a strong political message, you’re doing it a disservice,” he said. “I think Shakespeare is asking you to, at the end, bear witness to this man’s tragic demise. We see him trying to hold to a kind of truth, and tragically, ironically betraying everyone around him trying to hold to his true sense of himself.”

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Not all of “Coriolanus’” characters are motivated by such obstinate adherence to principle. The rival general Aufidius (Gerard Butler) is driven by a simple desire for victory, and Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), is every bit his equal in blood lust. Although she never raises a hand, it’s Volumnia who’s the movie’s most fearsome warrior, dressed in a double-breasted overcoat and a commando’s beret as if she has just returned from the front.

“Vanessa has such amazing inner conviction about anything that she does,” Fiennes said. “The great moment was our first scene, where she bandages up my wounds in the bathroom. It was quite simple to shoot, but she was fantastic. She wanted to know exactly how she should bandage it, and then she did this great thing where she wraps it around my body, leans into her son and says a line.

“I could just feel her finding these amazing little nuances, which I knew would be huge on film,” he added. “I got very emotional, because I’d been wanting to make it for a long time, and when she came onto set for the first time and spoke those lines, that was my breakthrough.”

Early reviews for “Coriolanus” have been strong — Variety said the film “could pass for the work of an accomplished master” — and he and Tana are at work on a future project, although details are not forthcoming.

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“I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more of him as a director,” the producer said. “He came in so prepared, and he loved it. You could just see the excitement.”

calendar@latimes.com


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