Coriolanus has been, for a long time, one of the neglected Shakespeare tragedies; rarely produced, certainly not often filmed. In part, I think, it’s neglected because the title character and protagonist is so unlikeable. Coriolanus is a tough, mean, uncompromising SOB. Early in Ralph Fiennes’ brilliant film, we see him prowling the streets of Coriolus, shaved bald head drenched in blood, driving his men into a deadly urban battlefield by the sheer force of his personality. He fights his way into an apartment building, and goes door to door, looking for enemies to shoot. Fiennes seems unstoppable, raw, brute power.
The look of the film is entirely contemporary, machine guns and tanks in battle, TV screens in the city scenes. Fiennes wanted to do the film, but couldn’t persuade anyone to direct it, so took it on himself–it’s his first film, and let’s hope it’s not the last.
The story: Gaius Martius, a soldier’s soldier, returns from battle a war hero; having won his laurels in Coriolus, the Senate renames him Coriolanus, and power-behind-the-throne Senator Menenius (Brian Cox) schemes to make the new hero consul–President. But power in Rome isn’t just found in the Senate. A consul has to woo the people too, and the newly minted Coriolanus remains the least ingratiating of political aspirants. Knowing this about himself, Coriolanus demurs, but his ferocious mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) persuades him to run for consul. He proves himself no politician. Two Senators, the wily foxes Brutus (Paul Jesson) and Sicinius (James Nesbitt), stir up the common people in opposition, and he’s finally banished from Rome.
He seeks out Rome’s great enemy, Aufidius (Gerard Butler), general of the Volcian forces he’d defeated in Coriolus. Aufidius accepts his help–sees him as providing an easy path to conquest. Knowing they have no chance of defeating a Volcian army commanded by Coriolanus in battle, the Romans send various old friends to try to talk him out of invading. Menenius, rejected, commits suicide. But there is one Roman strong-willed enough to stop Coriolanus. Volumnia, accompanied by his wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain), talks him into stopping the invasion. Rome is saved. Aufidius, furious, puts Coriolanus to death.
The filmmaking is superb, all hand-held cameras and brutal battle scenes and then, all these scenes in Parliamentary back rooms, with sleazy politicos plotting together. The acting is beyond superb. I know the play well, and I know that great confrontation scene between Volumnia and Coriolanus, in which she persuades him not to conquer Rome. And still, when Vanessa Redgrave marches through this army camp to where her son sits in a camp chair, I thought “there’s no way. Not this Coriolanus. he’s so tough, he’s so mean, there’s no way she persuades him.” And then, she starts, and it’s Vanessa Redgrave, 75 now, all those years of concentrated power and fury in her voice and body. It’s a clash of two great wills, and when she wins, it’s somehow believable; incredibly, we buy it. It’s one of the greatest scenes in Shakespeare–watching the film, we get to see it as well acted as ever in history.
But everyone’s great in it–Butler, as the charismatic soldier Aufidius, Brian Cox, even poor Jessica Chastain, who makes something of the thankless role of Virgilia. I was especially taken with a Belgian actress, Lubna Azabal, who plays First Citizen, and turns her into a kind of proto-terrorist, all brain-less direction-less anger and resentment; also an Israeli actor, Ashraf Barhom, who plays Second Citizen, a guy who tries to be a voice of reason, but is far too easily drowned out. Tiny roles, both, but in this film, they’re utterly memorable.
Shakespeare works well on film, I think because the Elizabethan platform stage was so versatile–it’s pure theatrical space, and filling it required imaginative interaction. We can re-imagine ‘Coriolus’ as Sarajevo, or turn Romeo and Juliet’s Verona into Verona Beach, or let Richard III declare “now is the winter of our discontent” into a WWII era microphone, and it enhances the text, it doesn’t do violence to it. And I rank Fiennes’ work here among the greatest of Shakespeare screen adaptations, along with Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet, Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, and Hamlet (which, I know, is wildly uneven; I still love it), and Richard Loncraine’s Richard III, (with Ian McKellen). It’s an unsettling, shockingly contemporary play, with a modern cynicism about politics. Did Shakespeare get everything right?