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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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