Martius (Ralph Fiennes) is a warrior. Raised as such by his fierce mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), he stands ruthless and bloody on the battlefield, which, in this version of Coriolanus, is bleakly urban. As Martius makes his way from one point of brutal violence to a next, as he presses forward during an early combat scene, he is daunting from every angle. And as he comes upon his sworn enemy for life, the Volsci officer Aufidius (Gerard Butler), Martius appears all the more resolute: they fight barbarically, hand to hand in gray dirt, until both are downed and then pulled apart by their seconds.
Once he returns home to Rome, Martius is celebrated as a wounded hero, as he and his men—despite and because of his fight with Aufidius—have in fact taken his opponent’s city, which name is ceremoniously bestowed on the hero: Coriolanus. Proud and sure and ever ambitious, Volumnia assumes he will take the next steps, campaign for office and continue to lead the people from a new and vaunted station. When warriors come home, she knows from her own experience, they refocus their fury and their violence, they take it out on their political opponents and they run their governments mercilessly.
It happens that Martius’ particular style of warring is not so easily transformed into this other sort of campaign. As the film shows again and again in harshly lit, grimly framed settings—interiors and exteriors equally dire—Martius resents the need for civility and interpersonal nicetie. He’s ill at ease with his wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) and young son, and he’s visibly distraught when facing cameras, whether in studios, at his doorstep, or on the campaign trail. This presents a problem for his mother’s plans, as well as those of his mentor/handlers, including Senator Menenius (Brian Cox). He must be retrained for upcoming encounters with civilians they surmise, or at least he must be toned down, so that he might have conversations on stages or make speeches before audiences, so he might speak persuasively and not only condescendingly or coarsely.
In Martius’ education process—which does not go well—Coriolanus (Fiennes’ directorial debut) makes plain the resonances Shakespeare provides for today. Martius goes before assorted audiences, including street protestors, angry over their poverty and the government’s ineffectiveness, a seemingly wide swathe of demonstrators represented most vividly (and apparently pointedly) by two individuals of color, Tamora (Lubna Azabal) and Cassius (Ashraf Barhom). The Roman senators, of course, are white and male, and rather vehement about defending their sense of entitlement: indeed, they see Martius as something of an added value for their status quo, a soldier yes, but also born to the ruling class by virtue of his much respected and all-powerful mum.
Certainly, as these puffy-faced politicians keep their distance from their constituents (except when seeking their votes), they resemble today’s arrangements as much as yesterday’s. But as Martius falters in his efforts to woo supporters, as his social ineptitude appears to be a function of his codes of soldiering (and PTSD), Coriolanus complicates his problems via TV. He’s not only a warrior-cum-politician, he’s now a celebrity, thus fundamentally difficult and corrupt. As a celebrity, he performs, he is false by definition. As a soldier, he also performed, but in a way that he believes is truer, more authentic, more a result of conviction, whether that conviction is survival, aggression, or devotion to one’s fellow soldiers.
This dilemma—how Martius might stay “true” to a self he’s imagining or someone else (his mother) has imagined for him—is exacerbated when he fails miserably as a politician and so is banished from Rome. In frustration and revenge, he makes his way back to Aufidius, who takes him in as a soldier, specifically, one who has excellent insight into how to beat the Romans.
In his new role, Martius is again celebrated, in ways that frustrate him again—and certainly frustrate his new mentor, Aufidius. The other soldiers adopt his affect, his baldness, his swagger. Again, Martius is confronted with the question of who he is, and cannot suss out an answer, except one that’s awfully similar to the one he thought he had before, on the battlefield, the one pounded into him by his mother.
This isn’t to say that Coriolanus blames Martius’ mother for his emotional and moral deformities, or even that these are identified as such. Rather, the fault lies with most everyone who loves or loathes this creation Coriolanus, including himself. At once product and producer, victim and aggressor, consumed and consumer, Martius is a monster but not unknown, not deviant, or even very different. He’s only more.