I mentioned this adaptation of Shakespeare's play way back last summer, after I went to a talk on it given by Ralph Fiennes at the Hay Literary Festival, and it's finally out. The film is brilliant - fantastic acting all round, pretty much as you'd expect from Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave (and I think Gerard Butler has been underrated for too long) and Fiennes' direction is great too - visually interesting without distracting from the story. (The choice of a dragon tattoo as a motif was perhaps unfortunate given the timing of the film's release, but since it was made yonks ago, that's not his fault).
Spoilers follow - if you don't know the story and want to see the film, stay away until you've seen it!
OldHousemate(thecamelridingone) and I saw the play at Stratford years ago, following an impulse to get some use out of their under-25 offers before we outgrew them. (In fact, we saw one of the very last performances in the old theatre at Stratford before it was closed for renovation. The set was a simple but big and effective design involving columns going right from near the front of the stage to the back, and I was quite sad at the time knowing that the theatre was being redesigned in a way that would make sets like that impossible. I haven't been there since the new theatre opened, so I don't know how they're creating sets in the thrust-stage design).
The actor playing Coriolanus, William Houston, was excellent, and in a totally different way to Fiennes. From what I remember, the RSC actor went for a really manic energy, a man who could barely sit still with a quick temper. In the scene where Coriolanus meets the people, I seem to remember him acting basically as a huge snob, making fun of them (there were lots of lines about 'mocking' in the film, but I found it hard to see the mocking in the lines - I'm not sure whether the script had been over-edited, or I just drifted off for a moment and missed it). Fiennes' Coriolanus, though he can shout up a storm when he needs to, is much quieter and Fiennes-like at other times. He's intense in a slightly more slow-burning fashion (except in the middle of a fight, when he breaks out and screams the place down) and his problem with appeasing the people seems centred more in him being somewhat uncomfortable in his skin and too brash and honest to play games with them - whereas from what I remember from the other performance, it was more about him simply feeling utterly superior to the people and not caring what they thought. Either way works perfectly well, and both performances were equally effective.
William Houston as Coriolanus
At the time OldHousemate and I went to see Coriolanus, we each had a first class honours undergraduate degree in Ancient History (she may also have got her Master's by then, I can't remember), but neither of us had a clue what was going on. At the time, neither of us had done much work on the Roman republic in years, and what we had done was mostly about the Late Republic - Julius Caesar, Pompey et al. Coriolanus is a much earlier figure - so early, in fact, he's almost more legendary than historical. His story is full of intricate details concerning how one became consul at this early stage, and the function of the tribunes when they were a relatively new institution (which was to stand for the plebeians against the patrician consuls and senators. As more and more positions were opened up to plebeians as well, their role changed over the years). It is largely this incomprehensibility that Fiennes has hoped to overcome by giving the play a modern setting (in a random southern European landscape 'called Rome').
Fiennes has no interest in the story as an incident from Roman history - only as a Shakespeare play (I know this because I asked him last summer. This is probably the starriest this blog will ever get - a one-question interview with Ralph Fiennes!). The great advantage of this modernising approach, which has been used frequently on Shakespeare plays for years, is that he can draw out the emotional beats of the story, using pared-down dialogue and added visuals, making it comprehensible to everyone. Like Baz Luhrmann in his Romeo + Juliet, Fiennes uses newsreaders to great effect. In addition to Channel 4's ever-brilliant Jon Snow, just as good with Shakespearean dialogue as news, Fiennes has the advantage of being able to make use of the development of 24-hour news channels with rolling text across the screen that have taken off in the last ten years or so, where Luhrmann had to make do with the old spinning-newspaper trick. These punchy headlines allow him to make important developments crystal clear to the viewer, in a way the stage production couldn't.
I have to admit, though, a part of me wondered if this isn't too Roman a story for such complete avoidance of its context to work for me. The story of Coriolanus is known chiefly from Plutarch's Lives of the Greeks and Romans, in which Coriolanus is featured as a great Roman figure from Rome's past (paralleled with Alcibiades, a Greek general who changed sides several times - changing sides is clearly the theme Plutarch wanted to focus on). It's also featured in Livy's History of Rome. His story is tied up with ideas about Romanness and Coriolanus' tragedy is that he is first exiled from, then turns against, Rome. I'm not quite sure the story works so well when the state he fights for, and then against, is an anyplace 'called Rome' - the point of the story is that Rome is pretty special, and turning against it is pretty drastic.
The character of Volumnia, Coriolanus' mother (Verturia in Livy) embodies both the advantages and the problems with cutting the story off from its Roman roots. On the one hand, we have a hugely powerful story about a mother and son, culminating in the great scene where she persuades him to make peace. Their relationship is at the heart of the story (along with that between Coriolanus and Aufidius, half homoerotic tension, half spitting hatred) and stripping away the 'period' costumes and so on makes it more obviously relatable for the audience. On the other hand, Vanessa Redgrave mentioned in an interview (I can't quite remember where - BBC's Film 2012, possibly) that she found it difficult to get into the head of a mother who would rejoice in her son's wounds. I can't speak for modern mothers of soldiers and officers, but in the ancient world, this would not seem surprising. Perhaps the Romans didn't say 'Come back with your shield or on it' as the Spartans supposedly did, but they were a culture that glorified military service and warfare and this attitude does not seem so out of place in that context. The idea of Volumnia and Virgilia persuading Coriolanus where the men could not also goes right back to Roman foundation mythology, in which the Sabine women persuaded their husbands and fathers to make peace. The family unit was at the heart of Roman life and politics and this idea, that the importance of family (especially including Coriolanus' young son) was paramount was a popular one - and a very Roman one.
On a smaller level, there were a few lines left in that referred to Juno or the gods, which sounded a bit odd given the surroundings (wherever they were meant to be, I would guess the population would be mostly either Catholic or Muslim!). And I couldn't quite buy that in a modern country, people would be elected or exiled on the basis of a fairly small group of people shouting - but perhaps that's my naivety coming through.
All this sounds like criticism of the film, which it isn't really - it's just strange seeing something so very Roman presented as something completely un-Roman. But the film really is great, and I haven't even mentioned Brian Cox's fantastic performance as Menenius (who, in one of the film's more deliberate nods to the story's Roman origins, slashes his wrists next to water). OK, there was a dodgy moment where his dialogue referred to Ulysses and Penelope and for a moment I expected him to pick a fight with Achilles and jump into a giant horse. But that's really my problem. His Menenius really grounded the scenes in Rome and made us care, showing us exactly when Coriolanus was doing something stupid, and when he was getting it right. Catch the film if you can - it's out now, but you sometimes have to look a bit to find it. It's well worth seeking out.