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Non-Review Review: Coriolanus

I’m a big fan of Shakespeare adaptations, if done right. The proper cast and crew can serve to make the Bard easily accessible to modern audiences, allowing people unfamiliar with the tragedy in question to follow along with the work remarkably easily. Ralph Fiennes has assembled such a cast and crew for his directorial debut, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Although not universally regarded as one of the truly great Shakespearean tragedies, it does have the epic scale and grand drama of some of the writer’s best work. T.S. Elliot would consider it to be, along with Anthony and Cleopatra, to be Shakespeare’s finest tragic play. I think that Fiennes adaptation makes a plausible argument for a long overdue reappraisal of the work. At the very least, it does an excellent job bringing it to a modern audience.

Roman around…

There are lots of reasons the Coriolanus isn’t quite as popular as some of Shakespeare’s other works. Perhaps the most obvious is Coriolanus himself. He is nowhere near as articulate and eloquent as Shakespeare’s other leading characters – indeed, it’s his stubborn refusal to speak that drives a large portion of the plot. Unlike Hamlet, Coriolanus doesn’t stand around making complex philosophical arguments about the nature of man and existence; nor does he, as Macbeth does, wax on about the morality or otherwise of his actions and his own fate. Coriolanus himself is a stoic and reserved character – a very emotional and aggressive one, but one who doesn’t seem to share himself as eagerly with the world as many other Shakespearean leading characters.

That’s not to suggest that Coriolanus isn’t a complex or multifaceted character. He is very much so. He’s a very proud individual who seems to rely on his own self-image to justify his existence and actions – as such, he doesn’t seek the approval of those around him, and rarely expresses doubts to his friends, family or even the audience. At one point, speaking of Aufidius, he remarks, “And were I any thing but what I am, I would wish me only he.” There’s no measure of insecurity in Coriolanus – he doesn’t long for anything that anybody else has – whether their lives, their wealth, their approval. He’d rather be nobody but himself – and, if he couldn’t be himself, there’s only one other person he’d like to be.

The mother of all problems…

Unsurprisingly, Coriolanus himself only ever seems truly at peace when he’s in war. In fact, Coriolanus and his opposite number both seem to compare the thrill of battle to that of courtship. “O, let me clip ye In arms as sound as when I woo’d,” Coriolanus greets a fellow soldier after a major battle, “in heart As merry as when our nuptial day was done, And tapers burn’d to bedward!” Greeting Coriolanus, Aufidius proclaims, “Know thou first, I loved the maid I married; never man sigh’d truer breath; but that I see thee here, thou noble thing more dances my rapt heart than when I first my wedded mistress saw bestride my threshold.”

Indeed, Coriolanus seems almost closer to his long-term adversary than he does to the people of Rome. An early struggle between the pair almost looks like a loving embrace. “I do hate thee,” he tells his adversary, but it seems he doth protest too much. Later on, Coriolanus demands of his emissary to enemy territory, “Spoke he of me?” It seems that Coriolanus values the opinion and approval of his mortal enemy more than the people he governs. The officer replies, “He did, my lord.” Coriolanus shows more enthusiasm than we’re used to, asking, “How? What?”

Don’t worry, it’ll all be Fiennes…

He doesn’t care whether the population of Rome loves him or hates him, because all that matters is his own opinion. The tragedy doesn’t stem from the character’s insecurity – it actually stems from his own comfort in his own skin. The public refuse to accept him because he doesn’t seem to need their approval. We’re told, “therefore, for Coriolanus neither to care whether they love or hate him manifests the true knowledge he has in their disposition.” Refusing to pander to the public’s demand, Coriolanus comments, “I had rather be their servant in my way, than sway with them in theirs.”

As a result, the character lacks the sort of existential angst that a lot of Shakespeare’s protagonists have. He seems relatively closed off. Ironically, it seems that audiences were never too fond of him for the same reason that the characters in the play disliked him. He doesn’t make himself accessible to those around him or even those watching or reading the play. He can be quite tough to get a handle on, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons why the play never caught on.

Worried about his General wellbeing?

Actually, that works remarkably well here. Fiennes has made a career playing these sorts of buttoned-down and repressed individuals, simmering with all manner of complex emotions hidden beneath a stoic facade. Fiennes has a natural talent for that sort of performance – look at his work in The Constant Gardener and even Red Dragon to get an idea of how perfectly suited this actor is to the role. Indeed, Fiennes’ Coriolanus seems to have a perfectly cast leading man. That said, it also seems to have a perfectly cast supporting ensemble.

The very best actors can take Shakespeare’s language and deliver it as if it were written yesterday. The can take words on a page that can seem inscrutable to many a young English student and speak them in a way that makes perfect sense. Fiennes has surrounded himself with a supporting cast pretty much perfectly suited to that task. Brian Cox and Vanessa Redgrave in particular deserve acknowledgment for their work here, with Cox suited to delivering the dialogue with a wonderful natural rhyme.

The not-so-great dictator?

The conspiring Brutus tells Menenius, “We do it not alone, sir.” In response, Cox delivers the Bard’s sardonic putdown with brutal accuracy, “Oh, I know you can do very little alone.” Oh, burn! Cox does that throughout the film, delivering this classic dialogue in a tone that would seem more suited to a modern movie than a Shakespearean adaptation, and it works very well in context. I think that Brian Cox should be included by default in all future Shakespearean adaptations.

Redgrave shows a natural talent for Shakespeare that isn’t at all surprising given her impressive filmography. Still, she seems to throw herself into this role, delivering her dialogue with a wonderful energy. As a lead character, Coriolanus is so withdrawn that it takes a performance like that of Redgrave to breathe life into the film. That’s not to dismiss the rest of the supporting cast. James Nesbitt and Jessica Chastain are their usual fantastic selves, and Gerard Butler demonstrates that he is wasted in trashy romantic comedies. I should not have been so surprised by his performance here, but it seemed like I’d forgotten that he is a reliable actor.

Make love, not war?

The second factor that perhaps explains why Coriolanus isn’t frequently counted among the Bard’s great plays is, perhaps, the subject matter and themes. It was, for instance, one of very few Shakespearean plays banned in a modern democracy. France in the 1930s banned it for its rather obvious fascist overtones. Some of these are, of course, due to the Roman setting, with the Fascist movement co-opting the iconography of the Roman Empire like the eagle and the name. There is imagery here that could very easily apply to the mid-twentieth-century Fascist movement, with Coriolanus rejecting the logic that would “bring in the crows to peck the eagles.”

However, there’s more than just the symbolism that makes the play a little uncomfortable in the wake of the Fascist movement.Coriolanus is essentially the tragedy of a great and talented dictator who is overthrown and forced into exile by a bunch of scheming democrats, for the crime of not making himself accountable to the populace. That is, of course, a gross simplification of the plot, but it’s all there. I can see why France of the 1930s might have been just a little bit uncomfortable with that plot, and the portrayal of an iron-fisted dictator as the victim of conspiring and manipulative democrats who must be stirring the public against him.

End of the road?

Brutus advises Sicinius before a major confrontation, “In this point charge him home, that he affects tyrannical power.” Aufidius, an enemy of Rome, remarks that Coriolanus will take the city by “sovereignty of nature” – suggesting that Coriolanus’ capacity to govern is not given by the people, but taken by might. It’s not too difficult to see why portraying such a character as quite sympathetic might make modern audiences just a little bit uncomfortable.

To be fair to Fiennes, he grasps and wrestles with the concept quite well. He sees that the story is perhaps quite timely, as Coriolanus is a democratically-elected ruler accused of seeking to erode existing freedoms. Sicinius declares to the public, “Here’s he that would take from you all your power.” Fiennes plays up the “liberty and security” aspect of the play, suggesting that Coriolanus would – with the best intentions – introduce harsh restrictions on individual freedoms in order for greater safety and security.

Staying true to the Cor(iolanus) of the play?

He also firmly establishes Coriolanus’ opponent, Aufidius, as a terrorist insurgent more than a rival general. Surveying the damage done by the Roman general, Aufidius insists, “For where I thought to crush him in an equal force, true sword to sword, I’ll potch at him some way or wrath or craft may get him.” It suggests that Aufidius might abandon conventional warfare, thus playing up the rather potent undertones of the play, and finding a relevance in the modern world.

There’s also a rather resonant undertone about media consumption of public individuals, something that helps move the play a little past its awkward defense of a would-be tyrant. While Coriolanus’ refusal to bow to the public’s demands of him are an interesting plot point, they do read quite differently today than they did fifty years ago. In this culture of instant media gratification, with the public demanding that their public officials do more than merely execute official functions, but bow to their every whim, it makes Coriolanus seem little more tragic than he might have seemed before.

Going against the grain (refinery)?

In a way, it recalls the grand tragedy of The Queen, where a stoic monarch refused to make herself a channel for the public outpouring of grief. It seemed more than a bit ironic that such demand had arguably fed into the media hounding that was responsible for Diana’s death in the first place – the desire to intrude on the private lives of key figures. Here, Coriolanus is more than willing to serve his people, offering his life, but they want more. They demand that he shower them with affection, show them his scars and mollycoddle them.

Coriolanus remarks, “I do owe them still my life and services.” Menenius responds, “It then remains that you do speak to the people.” When Coriolanus returns home from his latest conflict, his mother tells Menenius that he has plenty of photogenic wounds to show an eager public. “I’ the shoulder and i’ the left arm there will be large scars to show the people, when he shall stand for his place.”Coriolanus refuses to be devoured by these public demands to share himself so intimately. It adds an additional level of complexity to the character and his world, and arguably demonstrates just how prescient Shakespeare was.

The Brian of the operation?

Fiennes deftly populates the film with news coverage, video cameras and even mobile phones. His modern version of Rome even has FidelusTV, streaming live updates almost constantly. Although he might struggle a bit with the Shakespearean dialogue, the cameo appearance from Jon Snow is remarkably clever. It works very well.

This is a confident and clever directorial debut from Fiennes, and the actor distinguishes himself both in front and behind the camera. I can’t imagine how daunting it must have been to pick a Shakespearean play for a debut, but he demonstrates remarkably skill and talent adapting it for modern audiences. I hope there’s more on the horizon from Fiennes.

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2 Responses

  1. Great review! I love this movie and see it as a commentary on modern celebrity obsession and on the quieter spirits that move us forward.

    • I think that’s what so great about Shakespeare. The meaning and the relevence shifts from generation to generation, and I think Fiennes really siezed on an underrated classic with eprfect timing. I don’t think, for example, that Coriolanus has been more relevant in the past fifty-odd years.

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