His Eyes Are Clear and Bright, But He's Not There: 'Coriolanus'

When you’ve been covered in blood and gore -- literally, as at many points Coriolanus is drenched from his shaved head down -- it’s hard to swallow bullshit, let alone spew it.


Director: Ralph Fiennes
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Gerard Butler, Jessica Chastain
Distributor: Anchor Bay / Weinstein
Rated: R
Release date: 2012-05-29

As Orson Welles proved so ably, when it comes to cinematic adaptation, Shakespeare should never be considered inviolate to re-arrangement and (relatively) free interpretation. Welles cut, shifted and mixed-up not only lines, acts and scenes within individual plays, but between different plays, a kind of folio-deck-shuffling. This apparently heedless mix-and-match in no way implied a lack of reverence for the texts; rather it evidenced a fuller understanding of cross-textual resonances and inner-workings.

Certainly part of the plays’ attraction to filmmakers is not just the words, but also the sharp and simple dramatic formulas: Pride Destroys the Powerful; Indecision Leads to Death; Girl From One Side of the Tracks Meets Boy From the Other. All perfect structures upon which to hang any sort of ornamentation.

Can the texts endure any interpretation? I’m thinking less of films that use the plays as melodramatic springboards, such as West Side Story (1961) or O (2001), than those that stick to the text to the greater rather than lesser degree. Julie Taymor’s Titus (1999) was, for me, too much Taymor, not enough Shakespeare, and though I admire the hell out of Peter Greenaway’s visually dense Prospero’s Books (1991), it too is really an idiosyncratic vision all its own, text as pretext for hyper-text.

Coriolanus, actor Ralph Fiennes’s directorial debut, is a fine, bloody adaptation of Shakespeare’s late tragedy in which a Roman general, despised by and despising of the Roman populace, nonetheless saves the city from destruction only to ensure his own.

Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator) tweak the text -- a considerable cut here, a transposed line there -- but basically remain textually faithful. They take greater Wellesian liberties with the mise-en-scene, turning the play into the partial action movie it was perhaps destined to be. Updating events to an indeterminate, though clearly late 20th or early 21st century time period, wherein the designation “Rome” serves merely as shorthand for Any City Under Siege, the film mines the play's central conflict of an impregnable, perhaps irrational military integrity pitted against the permeable rule of civic leaders and the malleable will of the people. It is, in other words, a timely telling, a Bard for the era of “Occupation” and The Hurt Locker (2008).

In fact, Coriolanus was shot by The Hurt Locker’s cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, in the handheld/documentary/guerilla approach, with physical and verbal battles tracked by a continuously jittery or roaming presence. But Ackroyd also keeps this roving camera close during key speeches, so faces and facial expressions become as strategic as the words they transmit.

As the title character, Caius Martius, soon to be Coriolanus (after slaying the village of Corioli single-handedly), Fiennes is, yes, very fine. He invests every gesture with a rigidity and bitterness and such a sour disdain for the “citizens” that he seems almost blinded by it. The actor’s marbly eyes embody perfectly such lines as “He was a kind of nothing” or “These eyes are not the same I wore in Rome”. To paraphrase the '60s group The Zombies, his eyes are clear and bright, but he’s not there.

Vanessa Redgrave, as Volumnia, gives what many are claiming the best role of her career, and I’d agree that it’s up there (my personal favorite is her “Miss Amelia” in the weird film version of Carson McCuller’s even weirder novel The Ballad of The Sad Café). Redgrave’s chilly gray stare -- Coriolanus has his mother’s eyes -- belies her warmest words and the sinister comfort she offers daughter-in-law Virgilia (ably but unaffectingly played by Jessica Chastain): “If my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honor than in the embracements of his bed where he would show most love.”

Another Shakespearean mother doting sensually on her son, it is Volumnia who tends his wounds, and later, kneels between his splayed legs to ask forgiveness. When Coriolanus has been betrayed by the patricians/senators, Redgrave bares her acting fangs, so to speak. Her reading of “Anger’s my meat; I sup upon myself, and so shall starve with feeding” is done in close-up, her cool gaze passing icily, unflinchingly over the camera lens, no easy feat for an actor.

Other supporting players include Gerard Butler, as the Volscian general Tullus Aufidius, tentatively projecting with a Scottish burr his conflicted feelings for Coriolanus: military admiration abed with a physical adoration tipping into something more desirous: “…that I see thee here, thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart than when I first my wedded mistress saw bestride my threshold…” The two generals fight a brutally exhausting hand-to-hand combat, a kind of actualization of Aufidius’s dream: “We have been down together in my sleep, unbuckling helms, fisting each other’s throat…”

Brian Cox seems right at home playing Menenius, political go-between for Coriolanus and the people. Cox’s easy manner, his clear comfort with the text, makes for some of the film’s most assured and relaxed line-readings. Screenwriter John Logan’s transposing of some characters’ lines to others is most expeditious when he gives to Menenius the lines and actions of secondary character Valeria, on her visit to Volumnia and Virgilia, thus presenting the senator as a voluble, jovial friend of the family.

But it's Fiennes’s show all the way. Faced with a chanting crowd, his Martius spits lines with caustic disdain: “What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues that, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, make yourselves scabs?” Or “Go get you home, you fragments,” pausing before “fragments” with a fierce curled lip, as if it pains him to estimate the masses with even this measly word.

Fiennes also gives a nice interpretive twist to the battle speech, “If any think brave death outweighs bad life and that his country’s dearer than himself…follow Martius.” In the play, the forces shout in unison, ready to join their commander; in the film, they are silent, so that the following line by Martius is literal and bitter rather than jubilant: “O, me alone!” Then “Make you a sword of me?” a rhetorical question in the play, becomes in the film a vicious command: “Make you a sword of me!”

Coriolanus loves his country more than its citizens (But: “What is the city but the people?/True, the people are the city”). He can’t abide masses, only individuals.

“…for Coriolanus neither to care whether they love or hate him,” Cox’s Menenius explains, “manifests the true knowledge he has in their disposition, and out of his noble carelessness lets them plainly see’t.”

In other words, he’s monstrous proud. His integrity, in the moral and structural sense, being forged by war is necessarily out-of-proportion to the political and popular “anti-climax” of a peacetime world. When you’ve been covered in blood and gore -- literally, as at many points Fiennes is drenched from his shaved head down -- it’s hard to swallow bullshit, let alone spew it. Thus, Coriolanus has no patience for grandiose “Mission Accomplished” victory celebrations, or “showing of wounds.” When asked to relate his exploits publicly, his stiff demurral and swift exit from congressional chambers is the slap to the collective face ensuring his banishment. Until the fickle sway of the crowd and his mother’s manipulations lure him back for his true downfall.

I only read the play The Tragedy of Coriolanus before watching the film. The text is more alive, more exciting when not linked to explicit visuals. The words conjure a world that is extremely visual, but is also something else -- part word, part world. Poetry, I guess.

And it's also uncannily relevant. The richness of all the plays is their simultaneous ability to recall the era of their historical sources and settings, reflect the relative present of Shakespeare’s time, and project into our own. Indeed, there are lines and speeches that one might hear from someone’s lips today with minor vernacular updates:

“Care for us! True, indeed! They ne’er care for us yet. Suffer us to famish, and their storehouses crammed with grain; make edicts for usury, to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome act established against the rich, and provide more piercing statutes daily to chain up and restrain the poor…”

“Now the red pestilence strikes all trades in Rome. And occupations perish!”

The film embraces such contemporaneity, with graffiti like “Fuck The Rules” (I imagine ancient Roman insurrectionists scrawling similar things with goat’s blood), and even a direct co-opting of the ubiquitous stenciled fist spray-painted onto posters and placards.

Much of the kick of viewing modern Shakespearean movies lies in the ingenuity of a director’s staging choices. This was the thrill of Baz Lurhmann’s hopped-up Romeo + Juliet (1996), or Ian McKellan’s brilliant Richard III (1995), wherein, having gotten his military jeep stuck in the mud, McKellan’s Richard exclaims, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” an interpretive sight-gag that I like to imagine Shakespeare himself finding pretty funny.

There are similar clever “updates” in Fiennes’s Coriolanus: Sketching the political action with news briefs, where television graphics set the stage (“General Martius Suspends Civil Liberty”), or over power-lunches and roundtable punditry. The play’s “Messengers” are news anchors. Many in the crowd scenes carry conspicuous cell phones. Though for the most part sticking to essentially theatrical stagings, other than battle scenes, there are plenty overtly cinematic touches: Redgrave intoning over chaotic war footage, as if her voice is projecting the visuals; a point-of-view ceremonial head-shaving scene shot with the camera as Coriolanus; and a pronounced, highly effective sound track, as when Fiennes and Butler unarmor themselves before hand-to-hand combat: Velcro rips, snaps and straps, and the high metallic whine of knife blades. Orson Welles would’ve been proud, if not the Bard himself.

Bonuses include commentary by Ralph Fiennes, and a making-of featurette with some nice but brief on-set material.


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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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