Fiennes updates Shakespeare’s Rome in Coriolanus

Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave arriving for the London Film Festival screening of Coriolanus

Shakespeare is featuring big at this year’s London Film Festival – with Vanessa Redgrave appearing in two films linked to the Bard. As well as starring as Queen Elizabeth in Anonymous, which questions the very authorship of the works linked to Shakespeare, she appears as the matriarchal Volumnia in Coriolanus, the directorial debut of actor Ralph Fiennes. “I didn’t think I could play the part,” she remarked, as she arrived at the UK premiere, at the London Film Festival. “But Ralph thought I could, so I wasn’t going to turn down an opportunity to work with him.”

She was his dream choice for the role, the director insists. The first casting-related call was to her, once the script – by John Logan – was ready to go. Co-star Brian Cox was equally unsure when he first heard about the project. “I thought about togas and thought that’s not for me.” But when he realised that Logan and Fiennes were bringing the Roman tale into the modern day, he was interested to get involved. He even preferred the way the pair had written his character, Senator Menenius, to the way Shakespeare had done it.

“It was crucial to make it modern,” says Fiennes. “I couldn’t see it in togas, with swords and sandals. No apology, no explanation, I just put them in suits.” Logan notes that modern metaphors had to be found for many of the original features. The messenger has become a newsreader, played by Channel 4’s Jon Snow. Speaking in Shakespearean verse.

The dialogue was originally written for the theatre, notes the director, who wanted it delivered as naturalistically as possible for the screen. But he was careful to preserve as much of the original text as possible. “The dialogue is Shakespeare’s,” he insists. “But aggressively edited. There’s still a gravitas and poetic expression in the dialogue that I love and can still have traction to a modern audience. Although I accept it can be a challenge to some people.” I believes it’s worth persevering though. “Once your ear is in, you can be thrilled by Shakespeare in a way that modern English can’t do – it lacks the elasticity and athletic expression of Shakespeare.”

But getting the balance right wasn’t easy. Fiennes says he and Logan “locked horns amicably” as they tried to adapt for the screen a play the director believes is difficult, even impenetrable in places. But he says that taking bits away can often release what’s left.

Fiennes – currently bearded for his role on the London stage in Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest – has played Coriolanus on stage too, but he says on film it can be more intimate, as you can zoom in to see the character’s expressions.

Taking over directing duties for the first time, he had a trusted assistant directing him, giving him acting feedback. The hardest thing for him was the time pressure – shooting a grand, ambitious film about war and political intrigue in eight 5-day weeks, he didn’t have time for much rehearsal and often had just an hour to shoot scenes that would normally require half a day. “It wasn’t fun,” he recalls. “But it was exhilarating.”