At Long Last Coriolanus

[This post was originally titled “Tiff Report 1” when I started it–two months ago. There’ve been many distractions since then, but I was committed to writing something about this remarkable film, and in any case I’m still in time for its release in New York and Los Angeles on 2 December.]

As I’ve said before and will say again at length when the time comes, Coriolanus is Shakespeare’s least audience-friendly play. It’s not just me who thinks so. Frank Kermode, the most august of scholars, has the following to say in his Shakespeare’s Language: Coriolanus is “probably the most difficult play in the canon,” and its language is characterized by “stubborn repetition, free association, violent ellipses; in short, a prevailing ruggedness of tone.” Kermode states upfront, in the introduction to the book, that

It is simply inconceivable that anybody at the Globe, even those described by Shakespeare’s contemporary, the critic Gabriel Harvey, as “the wiser sort,” could have followed every sentence of Coriolanus.

But it’s not just the language that makes this a difficult play to like. Coriolanus is one of the most hateful characters, and quite possibly the most hateful protagonist, in the whole of world literature. His only virtues are the military ones. He hates everybody else in the play (and, one strongly suspects, himself), even the two he also loves—his opposite number the Volscian general Aufidius and his mother Volumnia, the only woman in Shakespeare even stronger-willed and creepier than Lady Macbeth. The rest—the rank-and-file Volscian enemy, the Roman rabble, the Roman senate—he hates without mitigation, and virtually every word out of his mouth expresses his contempt for them. It’s fair to wonder what led Shakespeare to make this man his protagonist in the first place, and not surprising that the dominant way of approaching the play remains the alienation effect (Verfremdungseffekt) it largely inspired Bertolt Brecht to theorize—although I quite like Richard Nathan’s suggestion in a comment that it could work beautifully as black comedy.

All this makes a film of Coriolanus an improbable proposition; Ralph Fiennes’s new version would seem to be the first that isn’t based on a previous stage production. When I saw it at TIFF I’d heard very little buzz and had no idea what to expect. I’m delighted to report that the inconvenience I experienced to see it was fully worth it. Coriolanus may not be a perfect realization of the play, in that it doesn’t capture every level of meaning Shakespeare put in. But it’s a triumph; not only an exciting film that I expect will draw new audiences to this difficult play, but a rare reimagining that isn’t just a translation of a stage production. Seeing it on the same day as Anonymous is the only thing that mitigated my depression about the latter movie.

One point to get out of the way: Ralph Fiennes’s head is shaved through almost the entire movie, and yes, the first time you see him it’s hard not to think: Voldemort’s nose grew back! But you get over it. I don’t think Voldemort had a dragon tattooed on the back of his neck, an effective visual pickup on the multiple comparisons in the play of Coriolanus to a dragon (particularly anticipating the line late in the play that he “is /grown from man to dragon” [V.iv.12–13] ; the seed of his isolation from humanity is already present). Or is it just a shoutout to Stieg Larson?

That said, we can disitnguish two strands in Coriolanus. There’s a whole set of issues about power and authority, clustered around the relations between Coriolanus, the rabble, and the Senate, especially the tribunes and the genial Menenius; and there’s the weird open-ended triangle formed by the individual relations of Coriolanus, Volumnia, and Aufidius. Any successful adaptation (stage or screen, straight, alienating, or black comedy) is going to have to capture these relationships and keep them in rough balance, as Shakespeare does.

The opening of the movie might appear to upset that balance. Shakespeare begins with the rabble, preparing for action in the Roman food riots. This is significant in all kinds of ways. The individual plebs are designated “Citizens”; they have a voice and must be heard. (Compare the opening of Julius Caesar, where the first speaker is the tribune Flavius, who with his colleague Murellus is there just to drive the commoners away from the Caesar’s triumphal procession. The tribunes in Coriolanus have a very different relation to the plebeians.) Fiennes opens instead on an intensely individual image—an incised knife, obviously a fighter’s prized property, being sharpened. In the background, a TV projects BBC-style coverage of the riots and a talking-head interview with Coriolanus. The knife sharpener turns out to be Aufidius—who doesn’t appear in the play until Act I, scene 2. The emphasis is shifted to the Coriolanus-Aufidius axis (and at least subliminally we pick up that that knife is being sharpened for Coriolanus). Shortly after, we see the Romans watching a tape of Aufidius shooting a Roman soldier in cold blood (his last words are “Know’st thou me yet?” anticipating what Coriolanus will say to Aufidius much later). These scenes clearly orient the film on the side of the individual character relationships.

Others may disagree, but I don’t think this comes at the expense of the political content, for we cut quickly to the citizens, at first in closeups, then disclosing that they are watching the senator Menenius on TV. This is visually clever, reinforcing the media theme that turns out to be pervasive, but it means there can’t be any back and forth, which means Fiennes has to sacrifice the best single speech in the play, the fable in which Menenius compares the body poiltic to the human body and the belly, the essential organ without which the whole would die, to the Senate (those of you who have read Naked Lunch will recall how William S. Burroughs moves the essential organ further down the digestive tract; but then he would, wouldn’t he?) A pity, but if you hadn’t read or seen the play you wouldn’t know the speech had been cut.

In any event, Fiennes needs to engage the audience quickly, and he succeeds. With the key figures introduced, we move to food riots at a warehouse, presented in 21st-century fashion, with handheld, highly mobile, Paul Greengrass–style camera (is it coincidence that James Nesbitt, so memorable in the equally political Bloody Sunday, plays the tribune Sicinius?) until, as in the play, Caius Martius (as he then is) fails to persuade the rabble to disperse and a phalanx of cops in riot gear and shields come in. If there was any question about the political content of this movie, it is swept aside by this scene, an uncanny anticipation of current events.

In such a situation, what’s a general to do but go to war? After a peaceful interlude that serves to introduce Volumnia and Coriolanus’s wife Virgilia (alas, ditching the little speech in which Virgilia describes Coriolanus’s son tearing apart a butterfly), we witness the pitched house-to-house battle for the Volscian town of Corioles that earns Martius the name “Coriolanus.” This is an extraordinarily vivid rendering that will remind you of The Hurt Locker, for the excellent reason that Fiennes’s cinematographer Barry Ackroyd had the same duties for that film (recall that Fiennes had a cameo in The Hurt Locker and was the star of Kathryn Bigelow’s still criminally underrated Strange Days). Like the prologue with Aufidius, this episode goes beyond the events of the play for the express purpose of drawing in the audience, but here too I see Fiennes respecting the text, and in a surprising way. What seems to be nothing more than a blatant ripoff of The Hurt Locker, a scene in which Coriolanus encounters an innocent, terrified old man and accepts his offer of water, actually dramatizes a strange and profound little exchange between Coriolanus and his general Cominius:

CORIOLANUS

The gods begin to mock me: I, that now
Refus’d most princely gifts, am bound to beg
Of my lord general.

COMINIUS

Take’t, ’tis yours. What is’t?

CORIOLANUS

I sometime lay here in Corioles
At a poor man’s house: he us’d me kindly,
He cried to me. I saw him prisoner,
But then Aufidius was within my view,
And wrath o’erwhelm’d my pity. I request you
To give my poor host freedom.

COMINIUS

Oh well begg’d!
Were he the butcher of my son, he should
Be free as is the wind. Deliver him, Titus.

LARTIUS

Martius, his name?

CORIOLANUS

By Jupiter, forgot!
I am weary, yea, my memory is tired.
Have we no wine here?

[I.ix.78-89]

The one time Coriolanus expresses a positive human emotion, he can’t follow through on it.

There is little time for reflection in the film, though, for Coriolanus, covered in blood, is immediately hunting down Aufidius. After a spectacular knife fight in a roundhouse, we cut back to Rome, where preparations are afoot to welcome Coriolanus home. Naturally Volumnia is in the vanguard of the welcoming party, in a pea coat and beret that make her look more military than her son.

The core of the play—Coriolanus’s rise and fall—follows. The cinematography and point of view return to the kinetic news report style of the opening, cutting back and forth between reality and TV: Coriolanus’s “trial” takes place in a studio resembling Newsnight‘s; the real-life BBC presenter Jon Snow pops up every now and then; there is even a red band at the bottom of the screen. The Fidelis network of Coriolanus’s Rome is plainly our BBC. And importantly, this isn’t just a postmodern flourish on Fiennes’s part. By taking us out of the action and underscoring that we are watching a spectacle, Fiennes finds a cinematic counterpart to the Alienation Effect—one whose familiarity from a thousand movies and TV shows makes it all the more effective. (Though maybe not effective enough: here is a commenter who completely misses the point.)

We see the tribunes Sicinius and Brutus, played with just the right balance of sincerity and hypocrisy by Paul Jesson and James Nesbitt (the star of an extremely political film, Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday), acknowledging the returning hero yet already starting to scheme against him. Later, in a remarkable scene not staged this way by Shakespeare, we see Volumnia bandaging Coriolanus’s wounds in their house late at night. Again Fiennes finds a very effective way of staging the relationship, charged on so many emotional levels, between Coriolanus and his mother. The scene is even more charged when Virgilia comes in on them unobserved, leaves and kisses their sleeping son, and returns to bed to find Coriolanus there, with a pretty clear, however metaphorical, postcoital implication.

The next day Coriolanus is officially welcomed back and awarded the honorific “Coriolanus,” the hero of Corioles. There’s a telling visual moment when Coriolanus, unable to take all these speeches praising him, steps outside and encounters a janitor operating a floor buffer. The look of contempt they exchange foreshadows the events soon to come. For in order to become consul (a goal he doesn’t quite know why he’s pursuing), he must show himself to the people in the marketplace. He doesn’t want to do it, and recoils at even the suggestion of a touch. Looking as if he is surrounded by zombies, flinching in disgust at their touch, he says that he has heard their “worthy voices, worthy voices.” The contempt in the repetition is palpable, undercutting the immediately preceding speech that concludes “Indeed I would be consul” and in which he uses the word “voices” seven times in seven lines.

Showing himself is sufficient to achieve the consulship, but he’s quickly outmaneuvered by the tribunes and, after a trial in the TV studio, is banished. Or more accurately, banishes Rome:

CORIOLANUS

You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o’ th’ rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air: I banish you!

[III.iii.124]

This is the emotional high point of the play, as the language makes clear even in this snippet, and Fiennes is fully up to it.

I like the symbolic manner in which Fiennes depicts Coriolanus’s self-banishment. Setting off on foot, he passes through the slums of Rome; tarpaper shacks, tin roofs, children and dogs playing in the dust, indifferent to the passage of their ex-consul. A cut, and his hair and beard have grown out, indicating the passage of time. Does it also indicate that he is loosening up, that this solitary life on the road, sleeping under windbreaks, suits him? The brief scene (IV.iv) in which Coriolanus arrives in the Volscian city of Antium and resolves to meet Aufidius is extended into a walk down the main street in which Coriolanus passes couples in cafes, groups of men talking and so on, all comfortable with each other in pointed contrast to this man who is not even comfortable with himself. That contrast is carried through to Aufidius, discovered dining with his men. Coriolanus genuinely does not know how Aufidius will react to his “Know’st thou me yet?” [Iv.v.64] but if we think back to the beginning we can predict the outcome. Here, though, Coriolanus is greeted with a hug for dear life. This is one of the scenes about which some argue that Shakespeare is presenting a gay relationship (as Stanley Wells discusses in Looking for Sex in Shakespeare); I think Fiennes undermines this tiresome reductionism, but I’ll have more to say about this when we get to the play itself. For now, it’s enough to note that the connection shown in this embrace, by these two men who have been through so much with each other, expresses their whole being. There is so much more to it than sex (to the extent that enters into it at all).

It isn’t long before Aufidius has cause to regret his decision to bring Coriolanus in as second in command against Rome. In an extraordinary night scene in their junkyard billet, a Dragon Brigade forms around Coriolanus, fashioning a throne for him out of a broken barber chair, dressing like him, having their heads shaved like him, and having their necks tattooed with his symbol, the dragon. I’ll leave it to you to make something of the facts that the piece playing under the scene—just about the only music in the whole movie—is called “Night of the Long Knives” and that Aufidius’s troops are dressed in brown.

The final emotional crux soon follows. Menenius is turned back and slits his wrists rather than return to Rome, clearing the way for the last-ditch conference of Coriolanus with his family—which, as ever, really means Volumnia. Redgrave particularly rises to the occasion, a mother for whom “proud” isn’t the word, on her knees beseeching her son to call off the invasion—and succeeding, Coriolanus proving himself a mother’s boy at last at what he knows is the cost of his life. That price he soon pays, surrounded on a closed road by Aufidius and his men, who surround and stab him as if he were Julius Caesar in the forum. The knife we saw Aufidius sharpening at the beginning deals the fatal blow, and Coriolanus falls covered in blood as he was when we saw them fight earlier.

There are (at least) two kinds of Shakespeare films. Most are filmed stagings; these generally don’t take place on stage, but even when they open up the setting they’re content to perform as if they were on stage. These are the usual suspects: Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, any Branagh except for his unspeakable Love’s Labour’s Lost, the Calista Flockhart A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and so on and so forth. Then there are reimaginings; a more nebulous category of films that try to come to their own terms with Shakespeare and result in something that is not just a staging with the much better special effects movies can provide. These include certain classic foreign-language productions such as Throne of Blood and Ran, and the fragmentary visions of Orson Welles. In our time—since 1990, say—I can think of only a handful of examples: Romeo + Juliet, Julie Taymor’s Titus, Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet. Coriolanus belongs in this company (though for a review that entirely misses the point, see here). This is an exhilarating film that should excite new audiences about this difficult play. I can testify that it’s done so for me; just in the course of writing this review I’ve come to see far deeper into Coriolanus than I had after reading the play. I wish Fiennes would take over from Kenneth Branagh as the successful actor who also directs Shakespeare adaptations. Mr. Fiennes, if you’re listening, won’t you think about adapting Troilus and Cressida?

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