NEW YORK - “Enough!’’ screamed the cover of the New York Post, referring to the Occupy Wall Street protesters camped out at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan. The headline and accompanying editorial, with the admonition that the protesters are “a public nuisance’’ whose “time is up,’’ caught Ralph Fiennes’s eye one early November morning during a brief stopover in Manhattan. He seized on the article’s resonance with the title character in “Coriolanus,’’ the big-screen contemporary adaptation of the Shakespeare play in which Fiennes both stars and makes his directorial debut. The film opens in the Boston area on Friday.
“The right-wing media have taken quite a reactionary attitude to the protests, saying that the Occupy movement is a blight on the city. And I’m sure that’s how Coriolanus would feel, too. . . . He has no time for the civilian world. People protest, and they’re hungry. But he can’t understand their point of view. He thinks their words are disloyal. He’s been on the front lines and been prepared to die many times,’’ said Fiennes, 49, speaking in a relaxed, efficient manner despite a harried schedule. He had just wrapped a three-month run playing Prospero in “The Tempest’’ in London and then was jetting off to shoot two films in a row: director Mike Newell’s new adaptation of Dickens’s “Great Expectations’’ and director Sam Mendes’s new Bond film, “Skyfall.’’
A vaunted, battle-scarred general, Coriolanus (né Caius Martius) oozes valor and forthrightness. But he is also a man of bullheaded pride with little sympathy, indeed condescension, for the suffering of the Roman people, who are in the midst of a food shortage and have had their civil liberties suspended.
The play presents the audience with a conundrum - a brutish protagonist with whom they may be deeply reluctant to empathize, but whose courage and fierce desire to stick to his principles they may respect.
“Coriolanus, for all his arrogance, is trying to hold to an absolute sense of what is right, an absolute sense of national loyalty and personal military integrity. He has a sort of military samurai ideal about life,’’ said Fiennes. “What I like about the piece is that the audience is challenged about where to put its allegiance and its sympathy. I think it’s a real puzzle, and we’re faced with it every day in the world around us.’’
After Coriolanus scores a resounding victory over the rival Volscian army led by his sworn enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), Coriolanus’s mother and her patrician advisers urge him to vie for the government position of consul. To do so, Coriolanus must win over the civilian population. But he flails like a fish out of water with the glad-handing and schmoozing of retail politics. When he’s attacked by political enemies in a televised ambush, he flies into a rage, contemptuously insults the masses, and denounces popular rule.
Negotiation and pandering is not part of Coriolanus’s DNA, and it’s no surprise that he’s consequently banished from his own state.
“Every day you have to make compromises and adjustments with other people. That’s the nature of living in society,’’ said Fiennes, whose recent roles include a volcanic supporting turn in “The Hurt Locker’’ and a chilling performance as the evil warlock Lord Voldemort in the final four “Harry Potter’’ films. “You’re constantly having to work out what are the right moral choices. It’s a continually demanding puzzle - like being in any relationship.’’
While “Coriolanus’’ doesn’t have the name-brand recognition of a “Hamlet,’’ “Macbeth,’’ or “King Lear,’’ Fiennes agrees that choosing to adapt this infrequently performed Shakespeare play worked to his advantage, because it doesn’t have the baggage of those other titles.
“A lot of people didn’t know the play or thought, oh, it’s a difficult one, isn’t it?’’ he said. “They don’t quite know what to expect. Or they were expecting something more intellectual and wordy. So I feel that it’s paid off. People have been surprised by the accessibility of it, by the relevance of it, by the dynamic narrative drive of the story.’’
While Fiennes has had the impulse to direct for some time, he had been searching for the right project. But he agrees that adapting one of Shakespeare’s more obscure works for his directorial debut isn’t exactly easing into the job - despite his extensive Shakespearean resume that includes several seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company and a Tony award-winning performance as Hamlet.
“I suppose I felt it was difficult for me to step out from under my acting hat, as it were, and to say, ‘I want to direct,’ ’’ he explained. “And of course people gave me that look of, ‘Oh, here’s an actor with his fantasy of a film that he wants to be in and direct.’ At face value, it seems an overweeningly ambitious thing to try. But I had a strong idea about what it could be and I couldn’t let go of it.’’
Fiennes was first captivated by Coriolanus as a drama student at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in the early ’80s and had always wanted to play the character onstage. He finally got a chance to tackle the role in a production for the Almeida Theatre in 2000, which was performed in London, Tokyo, and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. Still, Fiennes always felt that he had “unfinished business’’ with the part.
“Having played it onstage, I suppose I felt a dissatisfaction with where I had gone with it and couldn’t let go of it. So it just stayed with me,’’ said Fiennes. “I’m not honestly sure that I was that good at it onstage. It’s a very difficult part. Often, any actor who takes it on ends up seeming to the audience always to be shouting his way through the performance, because the play indicates Coriolanus is in a state of rage all the time.’’
Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan felt that a cinematic adaptation would, he said, “allow the silences of character, the watching moments of Coriolanus, the internal compression of him to resonate more onscreen.’’
The film is set in a contemporary milieu but not in any immediately identifiable country (a title card announces it’s “a place calling itself Rome’’). Still, the bracing imagery in “Coriolanus’’ feels as if it’s beamed straight from last night’s network news broadcasts.
Indeed, Fiennes agrees that the film’s landscape of economic and social upheaval has “popped up into high definition’’ in our own world, with Occupy Wall Street protesters clashing with police and shutting down the port in Oakland, Calif., anti-austerity demonstrations in Europe, and the toppling of long-entrenched dictators in the Middle East.
“I wanted the audience, as soon as this film starts, to be connected to this world - as a way into the story,’’ Fiennes said. “We know that politician getting out of that car. We’ve seen that camouflaged soldier on the news - running down the street through the smoke and the dust. We’ve seen the people in their hoodies and jeans protesting on the streets. That’s our world.’’
Boston’s Commonwealth Shakespeare Company also recognized the reverberations of the play with current events. This summer, the company will stage “Coriolanus’’ as its 17th free Shakespeare production on Boston Common.
“It feels like a good piece for the turbulent times that we’re in right now, in terms of the economy, the political landscape, and the upcoming election, as well as what’s happening around the world with the events of the Arab Spring,’’ said company spokesman Sean Horrigan.
Fiennes had long been drawn to contemporary cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare, particularly Michael Almereyda’s “Hamlet’’ (2000) with Ethan Hawke, and Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet’’ (1996) with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.
“Baz Luhrmann gave us a completely coherent modern world - and he gave us Shakespeare’s language. I think it’s a potent dramatic mix,’’ Fiennes said. “That was a benchmark reference for what I wanted to do.’’
Despite the myriad of questions that “Coriolanus’’ raises, Fiennes said that, in the end, it all “leads to this completely vulnerable, completely human confrontation with the mother figure. When I first saw the play, that’s what really moved me.’’
That formidable matriarch, Volumnia, molded her son in her family’s strict patriotic-military ethos and then prodded him to run for the consulship. But she never taught him the virtues of compromise or the art of politics - which leaves him adrift when the inevitable backlash comes from the citizenry.
Volumnia is played by stage and screen icon Vanessa Redgrave, whose powerful performance has sent critics reaching for superlatives. Indeed, more than a few of them believe she was criminally overlooked for an Oscar nomination this year. In a phone interview, Redgrave dismissed such talk and instead praised Fiennes for his ability to impart his vision for the film while simultaneously eliciting invaluable contributions from everyone on set. Still, Redgrave said, “I didn’t think I could play Volumnia,’’ but “took the leap of faith’’ because of her trust in Fiennes, a longtime close friend of Redgrave’s late daughter Natasha Richardson and son-in-law Liam Neeson.
“He’s a wonderful communicator because he asks questions and also because he listens to everybody,’’ Redgrave said. “He’s willing to adjust his own thinking because he has both humility as well as certainty in his vision. That’s very rare.’’
“Coriolanus’’ poses some thorny questions about right and wrong, Fiennes said, and confronts the audience with what he calls the “shiftiness’’ of our loyalties and “our continual tribal dysfunction’’ as human beings.
“Is it right to go and remove a dictator like Saddam Hussein? And we all go, ‘Yes, take out the bad guy.’ But you take him out, and what is it now? There’s continuing violence in Iraq, continuing evil,’’ he said. “We all, in our lives, want to lurch toward an absolute belief in the right thing. But it’s actually extremely difficult ever to know what is, in essence, in any pure way, the right thing.’’