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