Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus is a lively and intense adaptation of an obscure Shakespeare play--especially obscure, considering this is the first-ever attempt to deliver it to the big screen.
There's probably a reason for the neglect--Caius Martius (dubbed 'Coriolanus' after his conquest of the Volscian city of Corioles)--is an unregenerate bastard, a highborn military career officer seeking election to high office who looks down upon ordinary men, claiming their breaths “reek o'th'rotten fens, whose loves I prize / As the dead carcasses of unburied men / That do corrupt my air.” Asked to display his battle scars to the public--a Roman tradition when campaigning--he puts down the wounds as mere “Scratches with briers / Scars to move laughter only,” and declares “I would not buy / Their mercy at the price of one fair word.”
Coriolanus in effect is an unbending man, who refuses to yield to political expediency or changing fashion to win a single vote (a spin doctor's nightmare). Like character, like play--the work itself, written late in Shakespeare's career after he'd written all his best-known tragedies, is an unyielding, unbending drama about such a man, and the downward spiral his life takes, not long after enjoying a string of military victories. One might compare him to Richard III--Richard dissembles, manipulates, approaches every opponent and challenge by an indirect line (with his very body--as Shakespeare (brilliantly, I think) puts it--an indirect line). If they share anything it's a love of extremes, of the absolute: Richard for absolute power, Coriolanus for absolute honor.
Call Coriolanus then Richard's antithesis--Shakespeare's “what if?” proposition to come up with an antihero so unloveable the very play reeks of “the dead carcasses of unburied men.” The playwright wrought only too well; this is an ugly work that only its creator (and T.S. Eliot, who prefers this to Hamlet) can love.
And Fiennes. Laurence Olivier staged the play in 1959, drawing parallels to the career of Benito Mussolini by having Coriolanus' dead body hang upside down (I'm guessing Olivier meant to show the man as an ignominious fascist buffoon). Fiennes seems to want to go a different tack: to direct the film and play the man head-on: no apologies, no parodies, no whitewash. Shaven (shades of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now?), scarred, unsmiling, he seems to be begging you to hate him--Coriolanus as Coriolanus might present himself, so to speak.
Which is what, for me, helps both play and film succeed. Coriolanus the man is a piece of work but on occasion--in brief moments and snatches of dialogue here, there--you see chinks in the armor, bits of self-destructive stubbornness that serve not to annihilate his humanity but confirm it. When seeking high office the people tell him “The price is to ask it kindly.” His response: “You should account me the more virtuous that I have not been common in my love.”
That's what drew Fiennes to the material, I think, and what he draws out of the material: a thoroughly unlikeable man who--faintly, faintly--wants to be liked, albeit on his terms. Inflexibility in a character is rare in Shakespeare; such characters don't survive for long in the Bard's mutable environments, not with his oft-morphing storylines (Cordelia's love for her father was uncompromising and as a result he banished her, in the play's very first scene). Such characters don't survive in our present-day political environment either--think, oh, of Ron Paul, perennial presidential candidate, his horde of die-hard fans, his reputation as honorable loon. Possibly they have never survived long in any environment, fictional or non-fictional, past or present--hence their rarity.
And universality--there's something in human nature, in our nature, that recognizes that stubbornness in Coriolanus; the unanticipated, immature, irrational moments when he (and we) feel the need to dig in our heels and say “no!” even at the cost of a promotion, a political career, our lives. You've got to like or at least respect someone like that--he may be crazy, but he's our kind of crazy. It's a weakness we enjoy seeing in others, aware of it in ourselves; understood this way, Coriolanus' insufferable condescension, his arrogance, his magisterial misanthropy suddenly become symptoms of an overarching psychological disorder: he's hateful because he can't help himself, he was made that way.
Fiennes does well enough with his supporting cast--a fine Brian Cox as the realpoliticking Menenius; odious James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson as the relentlessly conniving tribunes Sicinius and Brutus respectively; a self-absorbed Gerard Butler as Tullus Aufidius, Coriolanus' arch nemesis and only other man he respects (“he is a lion / That I am proud to hunt”). Only the prolific Jessica Chastain (who's been in everything from Tree of Life to The Help to The Debt to this picture) seems out of place, playing Coriolanus' dull, dutiful wife Virgilia.
The standout is Vanessa Redgrave--Redgrave, who is superb in romantic fluff (Letters to Juliet), in pretentious crap (Atonement), in iconic roles (Howard's End, Julia)--is electrifying as Coriolanus' mother Volumnia. She is not what you might call a shrinking violet (“Anger's my meat; I sup upon myself / And so shall starve with feeding”); in fact she's the only character in the play fierce enough to argue Coriolanus into a standstill, after which she notes this between the two of them: “I mock at death / With as big heart as thou. Do as thou list / Thy valiantness was mine, thou suck'dst it from me.” She is in other words the root of Coriolanus' illimitable ferocity, which for her is a source of both pride and dismay.
As director Fiennes commits many of the mistakes of a first-time filmmaker: he works furiously to situate the play in the here and now ('Rome' in this case resembling Belgrave, with echoes of Iraq and Afghanistan), and amps up the violence in fight sequences, as if to keep us awash in the blood his protagonist speaks so fondly of--unconfident, apparently, in the play's ability to speak to us clearly, plainly, and in a strong voice. His fight scenes, while energetic, are incoherent; he subscribes unfortunately to the belief that shaking a camera brings out some kind of truth, or realism. He lacks the gift of surreal imagery of a Julie Taymor (Titus), or the coherent, consistent vision of a Michael Almereyda (Hamlet).
Despite the flaws Fiennes' interpretation of the eponymous character rings true, and he hews to it with an intensity that suggests a lifelong obsession with the material--excellent ammunition to carry into a film production. I wouldn't call Coriolanus great cinematic Shakespeare; wouldn't even call it the best Shakespeare recently made; but it's lively enough Shakespeare, and Fiennes a worthy enough interpreter of the Bard. I think in this case a little flexibility in one's own standards would not be such a bad thing.
First published in Businessworld, 6.14.12