Ralph Fiennes was a just a young boy when he first heard Sir Laurence Olivier perform Shakespeare’s Hamlet on the radio at his home in England. The moment proved to be a pivotal one for Fiennes, as the Bard has been a constant throughout his prolific acting career. Perhaps it’s safe to say that Shakespeare is in his DNA.

From Fiennes’ classic Shakespearean performances on the theater stage as Hamlet, Richard II, Romeo, and Coriolanus, to, most recently, Prospero in The Tempest, it’s not surprising that the two-time Academy Award nominee chose Coriolanus for his next role on the big screen. And not only does he star in the title role, he dons the hats of producer and first-time director as well.
Fiennes as the commander in a scene from Coriolanus
© Larry D. Horricks

For those who have not brushed up on their Shakespeare, a quick primer is in order. Coriolanus is a tragedy about a feared and yet revered military commander who meets his fate when he enters the political arena. Filled with high-octane action and bloody street-fighting scenes, it’s a story of honor, power, politics, ego, and family as the proud Coriolanus stands front and center with his stage-door political mother (Vanessa Redgrave) by his side. Proving the saying “pride goeth before a fall,” he is a man of courage and integrity who hates the political system which ultimately leads to his downfall. The film also stars Gerard Butler (300 and The Phantom of the Opera) and Jessica Chastain (The Help).

Under Fiennes’ exacting direction, the Elizabethan drama gets a new twist — a modern-day adaptation complete with the original language of the English playwright. Updating the story with guerilla insurgencies, 24-hour news networks, political pundits, and riots over food was no easy feat. “I wanted to set the film in modern times, as it touches on so many themes going on in our world,” says the courageous actor. The drama has all the things that modern audiences expect: excitement, action, edge-of-your-seat fighting scenes, political games, and family dysfunction.

Making a contemporary film with Shakespearean dialogue was also a challenge. “I hold the dialogue to my ear and it’s a thrill what he is doing with the language,” Fiennes notes. “I realize it’s a risk. People today are not used to that mode of expression. But I believe that audiences can be delighted and thrilled by what Shakespeare is doing with dialogue. I guess I am of the belief that many people like to be challenged. I know I do.”

Belgrade, Serbia, served as the city called “Rome” (which in Shakespeare terms can be any global capital) with the perfect mixture of old-world grandeur, urban blight, and communist-era industrial sites for the story’s setting. Fiennes teamed with Barry Ackroyd, his former cinematographer on the Academy Award-winning Best Picture The Hurt Locker, for a gritty, realistic, and unmistakable documentary style. Since Coriolanus is a sort of modern-day Rambo, Fiennes studied techniques with members of the Serbian anti-terrorist unit (SAJ) two to three times a week during the pre-production’s eight-week schedule. “I had to convincingly handle a weapon and the SAJ was very helpful. The soldiers are lean and fit. They’ve got to have compact efficiency in the way they move and operate. For me it’s about trying to get close to someone’s mental process while they’re in the heat of battle, in real danger.”