Modern-day interpretation of 15th-century tale is sole British production in competition at next month’s Berlin film festival. Coriolanus marks Ralph Fiennes’s debut as a director. Photograph: Larry D Horricks
It’s the 15th-century tale of a renegade Roman general from the 5th-century BC. But for Ralph Fiennes, Coriolanus is not just Shakespeare’s most urgent, complex tragedy â€“ it’s also a war story that speaks directly to the conflicts of today.
The big-screen Coriolanus, which marks Fiennes’s debut as a director, was today confirmed as the sole British production in competition at next month’s Berlin film festival. The modern-day interpretation was shot in Belgrade by the cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, who last worked with Fiennes on the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker. Fiennes stars in the title role as the loyal soldier turned vengeful exile, while his supporting cast includes Gerard Butler, Brian Cox and Vanessa Redgrave.
“The film is not portraying any specific conflict, though it obviously has parallels with recent social unrest in Greece, Tunisia, or even here, where police are carrying riot shields and kettling protesters,” Fiennes told the Guardian. “Before we started, I was prompted by descriptions of Russians going into Grozny and Americans going into Fallujah.”
The play was briefly banned in 1930s France due to its perceived fascist sensibilities. “In the past it has been linked with fascist ideology. But that’s not the right way to go,” Fiennes said. “It’s a story of loss and waste and devastation. Shakespeare is about provoking questions as opposed to telling you which way to vote, so to give it any overtly pro or anti-fascist slant is wrong.”
But Fiennes’s decision to update the play was sparked by aesthetic as well as political considerations. “Having acted in various Shakespeare productions over the years, I think that to be completely modern is the only way to go. Have the actors in modern clothes, drinking coffee, talking on mobile phones. It releases the energy somehow.”
Coriolanus is one of 22 films in contention for this year’s Golden Lion award. Other potential highlights include Margin Call, a drama of the financial crisis starring Kevin Spacey and Demi Moore, director Wim Wenders’s homage to choreographer Pina Bausch and Tales of the Night, a 3D cartoon from French animator Michel Ocelot.
The event also plans to honour the dissident Iranian film-maker Jafar Panahi with a career retrospective and a panel discussion on censorship in Iran. Panahi, the director of the award-winning The White Balloon and The Circle, was last month sentenced to six years in prison for his support for the Green uprisings that followed last year’s disputed presidential elections. “We are going to use every opportunity to protest against this drastic verdict,” said festival director Dieter Kosslick.
The 61st Berlin film festival runs from 10-20 February. It opens with the European premiere of the acclaimed Coen brothers western True Grit.