Never a popular part of the Shakespeare canon, “Coriolanus” (opening in limited released Friday, 12/2/11) bears a peculiar timeliness, in the muscular directorial debut by Ralph Fiennes.
Fiennes directed and stars in this film, which transposes Shakespeare’s drama about a career soldier forced to cope with political reality to modern dress. Like the Ian McKellen “Richard III” of 1995, “Coriolanus” finds whiffs of fascism among the populists and vice versa, in this adaptation by writer John Logan (also represented currently by “Hugo”).
But Fiennes isn’t playing favorites. What might be identified politically as left or right doesn’t matter to Caius Martius, the central character played by Fiennes, who will be given the honorific “Coriolanus” after his military victory over Rome’s enemies, the Volscians, in the city of Corioles.
He comes home a hero, having held his own in single combat against his sworn enemy, the Volscian general Aufidius (Gerard Butler), and sealing Roman victory by overrunning Corioles. Yet prior to his departure to confront the Volscians there, Martius was vilified by the same public that now heaps glory on him. Before the battle, he was simply a military tool of the government, keeping mobs of starving citizens away from government stores of food during a famine.
Indeed, those early scenes, recounted by TV commentators, show Martius mocking and disdaining the public. Think about recent scenes of police confrontations with the Occupy Wall Street forces and you get the idea.
But everything is different when you’ve saved the city from invasion. Suddenly Martius is being hailed – not just as a hero but as a possible candidate for consul, the country’s top office. Indeed, he is initially voted into the office – until his enemies start making mischief.
They point out that, in fact, Martius has never taken his case to the people for their approval. And that’s where Martius’ human flaw shows itself. Every politician knows you have to kiss up to the electorate – but Martius is a military man, not a political one. He balks at the idea of kowtowing to anyone, especially the rabble who, only weeks earlier, he had been manhandling with his riot-gear-equipped soldiers. He mocks the idea of populist rule – and the populace rebels.
Just that fast, he’s not only turned out of office but banished from the country. So he wanders in the wilderness until he finds his enemy, Aufidius – and offers himself for sacrifice. Instead, impressed at the humility of a superior warrior, Aufidius offers to team up with Martius to take on Rome together.
Shakespeare ultimately reveals Martius’ one weakness: the blandishments of his mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), who obviously has shaped him into the man he is. He is tough and resolute – yet his mother can manipulate his loyalties and play on his need for her approval.
Redgrave plays her with a steely femininity, a woman who knows her place in this particular order – but also her power to persuade. By contrast, Jessica Chastain, as Martius’ wife, can only stand by, looking helpless and pained.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine this marriage, given the rough, resolute version of Martius that Fiennes presents. This is a man with little give, a man whose own standards and rules of behavior ultimately distance him from everyone and prove his undoing. Fiennes conveys the confusion of a man who sees what he needs to do but is constitutionally unable to actually do it.
Shot by Barry Ackroyd with a jittery, cinema-verite style camera, “Coriolanus” looks like a chronicle of modern warfare. Fiennes and Logan understand how to turn messengers, reporting action from offstage, into their modern equivalent: the 24-hour news channels, constantly yammering in the background, detailing and, ultimately, trivializing the events of the moment.
“Coriolanus” is tough, compelling drama, a comprehensible Shakespeare adaptation that glories in the Bard’s language and ideas, even as it captures one of his most intriguingly troubled heroes.