Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Coriolanus (dir. Ralph Fiennes, 2011)

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.


  1. Once again, another excellent review. (I do admire your writing.)

    I think you make an excellent point concerning the re-setting of the story in contemporary times and if that undercuts the story. Yes, Fiennes saves himself money and hassle by using modern uniforms and battle tanks rather than lorica hamatta or pilum, but does he reakky make the story more understandable and immediate?

    As you know, it is often a temptation for modern commentators, and some historians, to judge the ancients by our own standards, an approach fraught with peril. However, as you rightly point out, doing the opposite, divorcing this story from its ancient setting runs the risk of the audience either not understanding or misunderstanding the motivations of the characters that would otherwise make perfect sense in an ancient setting.

    Re-casting Richard III into a 1930's Fascist England worked very well for Ian McKellan and the story still made perfect sense, but I Coriolanus is more of a stretch.

    Coming from a military family, the majority of the soldiers I met or served with did not rejoice in their wounds or even tout their exploits, let alone their medals. There was no lack of pride, to be sure, but it was always leavened with a large degree of humility. (Perhaps those were just the officers and NCO's I knew, and an exception in this respect, but I think not. Several were combat vets from WWII and though they could tell great 'war stories' is was not braggadocio. Perhaps they were simply older and wiser about it all when I finally met them.)

    That said, there are of course exceptions to every rule, but I think the attitudes of Coriolanus' mother and wife will strike many as odd, but would otherwise seem quite understandable of ancient Roman mothers and wives.

    Thanks again for the excellent review -- like you I've been looking forward to this film since seeing the trailer last summer. Opens here in a couple of weeks, about the same time as Star Wars returns to theatres. Now there's a double feature ...

  2. Thanks Narukami! Glad you enjoyed it :) And thanks for your comments as well. I have some friends in the military, but this isn't a subject we've really talked about as yet.

    I think this is a particularly difficult story to transpose - in a way, Caesar would almost be easier to move, even though he's so well recognised it might seem stranger.

    I must catch MacKellan's Richard III, I've still not seen it!

  3. This looks quite good. I'll probably have to wait for a DVD release though, Shakespeare just doesn't work quite right in German despite some decent modern translations. And it's only fair to modernize his settings, since he largely did the same thing with his source material. But I do find that any time I see Ralph Fiennes in anything these days, I find myself puzzled over the fact that he has a nose. (In the 2 pictures here, I would almost have taken him for Christopher Eccleston.)

    Plutarch probably picked Alcibiades to compare with Coriolanus not only because they both switched sides, but because Alcibiades supported the commons against the aristocracy, while Coriolanus was the other way around. There's also Alcibiades being all decadent and self-serving, while Coriolanus was terribly Roman and abandoned his revenge at the last moment.

  4. He DOES look like Christopher Eccleston!

  5. I'm really looking forward to seeing this. Excellent write-up. Also, getting to interview Fiennes? Swooooon!

  6. Well, sort of - it was a Q&A session and I was called on to ask my question. But it was very exciting!

  7. Super review! On the location of the story, while watching the film I took it to actually be Rome/Italy - partly because of the association of the patrician party with (ancient) Rome, but also because Aufidius' army seemed to have rather Dali-esque crucifixes on their clothing.

    Glad you mentioned Brian Cox. He was particularly good.


  8. He was brilliant - I don't remember anything about that character from the stage production, but Cox was fantastic and very memorable in the role.

  9. Six months late to the party! I wanted to add that I had the impression that the setting was pretty specifically Balkan. I can say that in the former Yugoslavia, attitudes like Volumnia's were current back in the early 1990s-- though that has changed over the past two decades. Fiennes was probably aware of that.

    As well, I'd say the scenes of political acclamation function nicely as a symbol of cynical demagoguery and the failure of traditional political institutions. Americans take note :)

    Fiennes also didn't shy away from this being probably the darkest, "ideologically" speaking, of Shakespeare's plays, verging on nihilistic. Very clever people can also be futile and brutal and pointless. It was a great movie but also a profoundly depressing one!

  10. I've just seen the film and thoroughly enjoyed it. Some of the characters looked vaguely Middle Eastern, but then when we saw the credits with lots of Yugoslav names, the Balkans made perfect sense.

    I thought the actors with smaller parts and the extras did very well. It must be very difficult to look convincing standing around with nothing much to do while the main characters in Shakespeare are spouting their lines.

    I couldn't see anything particularly mocking in Coriolanus's canvassing scene either, but I think you can take that in two ways. Either you just accept that not showing off your wounds to gain favour from the electorate was in itself considered disrespectful, or you can see it as the demagogues convincing the voters that something had just happened even though the voters had just seen for themselves that it didn't happen.

  11. That's true - something that probably happens more often than most of us realise...


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