Tag Archives: Coriolanus

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:


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


Take’t, ’tis yours. What is’t?


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.


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


Martius, his name?


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


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

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This hundredth post is a sad one, as we mark the death, on Saturday, of John Neville. Like Ian Richardson, he was a fine Shakespearean unfairly overshadowed by the big names of his generation. In Neville’s case, spending much of his career in Canada didn’t help either. But obituaries such as the Guardian‘s and the Telegraph‘s remind us what a force he was, as a young actor in England (I particularly like the anecdote about how he and Burton, switching off in Othello, both played Iago one drunken matinee; and to bring in current topics, I note that he opened the Nottingham Playhouse in 1963 as Coriolanus, with Ian McKellen as Aufidius!) and as an actor and impresario in Canada. I had had no idea that he was the artistic director of the Stratford Festival from 1985 to 1989, during which time he created his most famous role.

Yes, John Neville will be remembered—for a very long time—as the titular character in Terry Gilliam’s still criminally underrated The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. It’s a little flabbergasting (if anything can be a “little” flabbergasting) that Baron Munchausen was the most expensive movie ever made to that point; its estimated $46 million price tag would be $89 million today, which is probably about average. (The Motion Picture Association of America no longer releases average budgets; for 2007, the last year it did so, the average combined production and marketing cost of a Hollywood film was $106.6 million; as a rule of thumb, 20 percent of that is marketing.) Gilliam’s troubles with cost overruns, strikes, and other tribulations are well known—there’s a whole book about them—and they pretty much ended his Hollywood career, but he got the movie made and it’s the movie he wanted to make. Viewed today, it’s an exercise in imagination that is also a monumental, whimsical, beautiful, exuberant, messy meditation on the need for imagination, a theme Gilliam must have wanted to scream at the studio. The special effects hold up amazingly well after a quarter century, the main performances are superb (though what would you expect from Eric Idle, Jonathan Pryce, Oliver Reed, a young Uma Thurman, a very young Sarah Polley in her first role, and even Robin Williams as King of the Moon, a role in which his schtick for once is not fatally annoying?). But it’s Neville, fittingly, who makes the movie, creating a Munchausen who more than lives up to the trickster requirements of the role, but who is also genuinely affecting, as in this scene with the nine-year-old Polley.

Terry Gilliam directed Faust at the English National Opera last year. I’d love to see him do Shakespeare. I think he might be especially good for the problem plays (including Pericles and Timon here). What do you think?

Everything’s Fiennes

And what better way to wash the taste of Anonymous out of our mouths than an interview with Ralph Fiennes about Coriolanus? I’m pretty surprised that something with this much depth should appear in Playbill, which is what they hand out in Broadway theaters to give you something to flip through before the show starts. The interview is more interesting than most shows on Broadway these days, lending insight into Fiennes’s approach in translating this very difficult play into a triumphant film that is in a whole other universe of achievement from Anonymous. My next post should be my long-delayed review of that film.

Keeping House with Coriolanus

I confess, I linked to the Ralph Fiennes interview at TIFF before I actually watched it. Not a sin, since the link was only to show he’d actually been interviewed at TIFF, and even most Oxfordians are smart enough to realize that the star and director of a movie premiering at TIFF is going to give interviews. I was linking only to point you to one. However, it turns out to be terrific. An intelligent interviewer (we have those in Toronto) gets some extremely interesting responses; I especially recommend Fiennes’s comparison of our reaction today to movie special effects to Elizabethan audiences’ reaction to Shakespeare’s (and others’) linguistic effects. When you see that idea on this blog later, you’ll know who I ripped it off from. However that may be, do also catch his remarks on Anonymous and the authorship controversy. It’s such a pleasure to see a working actor and Shakespearean stand up for the truth.

If you are following The Calendar, you’ll notice that I am reading Coriolanus at the same time as I continue working my way through Hamlet. Since I only knew I’d be seeing the film five minutes in advance, I couldn’t reread it first. After the film I’m finding it far more interesting and accessible than I did on my first reading, as well as finding much to discuss about Fiennes’s choices. I’d say that means he succeeded. It looks like he succeeded in getting a distributor at TIFF, too, since the New Yorker Festival says the film will be opening on 2 December. I’ll remind you when that date comes.

Shapiro versus Godzilla

I heart Toronto. As William Gibson, or was it Cory Doctorow, once said, it’s a great place to live, though you wouldn’t want to visit. It isn’t New York—what is?—but in many ways its cultural life is fully comparable. Consider that we’ve just had the world come visit us at TIFF, and we’ll shortly have the International Festival of Authors.

Even so, I lived in New York for a quarter century, and often I still miss it desperately. I wish I could be there for the New Yorker Festival, for example, with its two Shakespearean special events, even though I’ve already experienced them in part. If my TIFF reports have whetted your interest and you live in New York, do what I’d do and get into the rush line for Coriolanus with an appearance by Ralph Fiennes (of course he did interviews at TIFF, but not at the 9:30 am Saturday showing I attended). And kill if you must to get into what for me would be the event of the festival, the New York premiere (as far as I know) of Anonymous with a joint appearance by James Shapiro and Roland Emmerich. Yes, you read right. Only in New York could you hope to see the best possible critic actually engage the perpetrator himself. If you’ve ever wanted to see the cliché about a battle of wits against unarmed adversaries made flesh, here is your chance. And if you do get in, please, please report in the comments!

TIFF Report 0: Prologue

Remember all the less-than-kind stuff I said about the Toronto International Film Festival? Well, guess what I did yesterday morning. That’s right, I awoke at 7 am. I thought about going back to sleep, but realized that if I’m serious about what I call my work, I take opportunities when they arise. So I checked out the TIFF website, determined that they were selling tickets for Coriolanus at 9:30 and Anonymous at 11:45 that morning, and hopped on the subway pausing only long enough to brush my teeth. Oh, and dress. I was awake enough to remember that. I then waited in the ticket line, from 7:25 (!—yes, people really will queue from 7 am in the hope of getting same-day TIFF tickets) to about 7:50. At one point, the woman in front of me asked why I wanted to see Coriolanus. I responded that it was a laugh riot, Shakespeare’s funniest play. She seemed to take me at least half seriously; if I understood her correctly she agreed, based on a production she had seen in Romania. Though she may have been joking about the Balkans setting of the film, I was inclined to think there’s something to that. Could you play Coriolanus as a very black comedy? Certainly he takes himself so seriously it’s hard to resist the temptation to mock him; on the page, I’m not sure any of the other characters succumbs (and nobody does in this film, either), but I would absolutely see a production in which they did.

In any event, I finally got to the cash register to find that though I could get a ticket for Anonymous, Coriolanus was on “rush,” i.e. returns. I hustled back to my apartment, showered (it was necessary by then, let me tell you), and caught a streetcar to the theatre. So here it is, not yet 9:15 in the morning, and I am standing in my second line of the day. But damned if I didn’t get in! With an aisle seat in the third row (the handlers were warning us that the rush seats were in the front of the theatre, but that’s where I like to sit; so do directors, I’m told).

And so the lights go down . . . I am trying right now to transcribe the 14 pages of notes I took in the dark; you can imagine what fun that is, but once that’s done I shall write and post reviews. I’m doing them separately in the hope that they might be picked up by some media outlet that attracts lots of eyeballs, hint hint. But for now, possums, the short takes: Coriolanus is limited in its aims—no Verfremdungseffekt here—but brilliant. It grows in memory. Anonymous is—well, I don’t quite know what it is, but it shrinks in memory. Judged as a period romance, it’s a cut and a half below Elizabeth: The Golden Age, that is, bad but not so bad it’s good. Judged on its terms as a polemic in the Authorship Controversy, well, I find myself wondering whether our pal Roland Emmerich is having one over on the Oxfordians. That is, the Shakespeare Conspiracy aspect is so absurd it invites the speculation that it’s a parody of the Oxfordian position. (By the way, the fact that I can have those two reactions indicates a real problem at the heart of this movie. There’s a real problem with the very idea of a nondocumentary film that’s made as a polemic. In rare instances, with real talent involved, you might get a Silkwood or an Erin Brockovich. More often, you get Atlas Shrugged. Anonymous isn’t quite as bad as Atlas Shrugged.)

But more on both films soon–

The TIFF Schedule Is Out–

and here is the info for Coriolanus. What kind of sadist programs this, of all movies, at 9:30 on a Saturday morning? I just might rouse myself–you’ll know if Coriolanus abruptly appears on The Calendar–and if so I’ll give you the lowdown.

As for Anonymous, you can navigate to the info from the Coriolanus link. Be my guest.