Saturday, March 10, 2012
Ralph Fiennes certainly doesn't choose an easy project for his first directing venture. "Coriolanus" came late in Shakespeare career and serves up an ambiguous tragic hero in the warrior-turned-politician Caius Martius (he takes the name "Coriolanus" after leading the Romans to victory against the city of Corioles). Coriolanus is not the hero-turned-savvy statesman Henry V or the Machiavellian Richard III or the introspective hero-turned-murderer Macbeth. Unlike Shakespeare's other tragic heroes, he rarely stops to soliloquize to enlighten the audience as to his motives and inner thoughts. But in a sense that's what makes him a good character for a new film adaptation.
Coriolanus suffers from pride and is not a character that you warm up to. But he's a character oddly suited to modern times. Written 4 centuries ago, the play has been used by both the Right and the Left over the years to promote both a pro-fascist and a pro-communist point of view. So although the play is not often performed and is not on the whole highly esteemed, its ambiguities leave it open to interpretation and therefore malleable.
Fiennes and screen adapter John Logan transport Shakespeare play to modern times and to a battle that's being heavily televised. The opening is a montage of CNN-style video and graphics summing up the current state of "a place called Rome." The divisive politics are clear from the start. A mob forms for a protest march demanding bread from the government, a government that the mob sees as privileged and out of touch with the common people. On the battlefield we meet Caius Martius (Ralph Fienes), a man capable of leading men under difficult circumstances. But Martius doesn't stir his men with inspiring speeches like Henry V's St. Crispin's Day address. He conveys no sense of glory or honor but rather threatens his men to fight or face his wrath.
His prowess in the battlefield makes him an attractive candidate that established politicians want to groom for office. But then his mother Volumnia (played by a stunning Vanessa Redgrave) has been grooming him his whole life for service to his country. But Martius, who comes back from victory newly christened Coriolanus, is uncomfortable in the media spotlight. In battle he is in his element but in the world of politics where appearances and clever words are so importance, Coriolanus does not fit in. He refuses to play along, to ask for votes, and to feign things he is not. He may be flawed by his pride but his blunt honesty is also a hindrance off the battlefield.
The Weinstein Company
The reason Coriolanus works in a contemporary setting is that he's an ambiguous hero for an ambiguous time. In some ways he comes across as rigid and old school, and yet there is a certain integrity that contrasts with the smoother politicians that he becomes surrounded by. Those who can spin a story for the media are more successful, so when Coriolanus runs into problems or suffers defeat, he chooses the only thing he knows ho to do, wage war.
Fiennes' Coriolanus is not a sympathetic tragic hero. But his downfall is not entirely due to his character flaws. He is also a victim of those who -- for reason both honorable and not -- want to manipulate him and use him for their own purposes. This is a surprisingly didactic play from the Bard. Instead of turning to English history for source material, he turned to Roman history, and in a sense that allowed Shakespeare to explore ideas that might have been considered critical of England. So Shakespeare, in this later play from his more mature years, tackles complex politic themes that might have gotten him in trouble if set within the context of the English court. Fiennes and Logan seize on this. They contemplate notions of class warfare, duty to one's country, and how valor in the battlefield can or cannot be translated to success in the realm of politics. And at the center of all this is a consideration of how power can corrupt.
Logan makes cuts to the text but keeps the language in iambic pentameter. This can take a little getting used to as the opening images are decidedly contemporary. But Fiennes and the whole ensemble speak the lines with such confidence and ease that it all plays as perfectly natural. I appreciate Fiennes as an actor much more when he is not trying to play a romantic lead (as in "The English Patient"). I find him much better and more impassioned as lunatics and madmen ("Schindler's List," "In Bruges"). As Coriolanus he creates a complex man who seems incapable of self-reflection and insight but is gifted as a warrior. Also providing strong support among a fine ensemble are Brian Cox and Jessica Chastain.
The Weinstein Company
But the real standout of the film is Vanessa Redgrave. As Coriolans' mother, she displays a resolve and ferocity that is riveting. At one point she tells her son's wife (played by Chastain) that "had I a dozen sons, each in my love alike and none less dear than thine and my good Marcius, I had rather had eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action." She could have just been an overbearing mother who pushes her son into a career he is ill-suited to, but she makes the role much more than that. She ignites Volumnia with a passion and fire that can be inspiring but her downfall is how narrowly focused she is in her pursuits. Seeing these actors speak these wonderful lines from Shakespeare and deliver them with such intensity reminds us of two things: one, that Shakespeare is still vitally relevant today, and two, that actors like these need to be challenged more often with text as complex and demanding as the Bard's.
"Coriolanus" (rated R for some bloody violence) is not considered to be one of Shakespeare's finest plays yet even one of his lesser plays is so rich with ideas and stunning language that it stands head and shoulders above almost everything else in theaters. It's too bad, though, that this weekend is uncommonly overloaded with viewer choices. Not only did the San Diego Latino Film Festival kick off but we finally got the long delayed release of another stellar indie film, "We Need to Talk About Kevin." So enjoyed having quite a few tempting movies to choose from.
Companion viewing: "Henry V," "In Bruges," "Oscar and Lucinda"