I’m just writing a short post this time that blessedly has nothing to do with the recent material that has filled this blog. It’s nice to get back to other pursuits.
I saw Coriolanuslast night starring Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain and John Kani. As I understand, the film version was inspired by the 2000 production of Coriolanus that Ralph Fiennes starred in at the Gainsborough Theatre. I had the pleasure of seeing that production back in the day and I have to say that this piece was able to articulate many aspects of the play that were lost in the 2000 original.
One thing about Coriolanusis that the play can end up reading like a cartoon or an action movie. To the first time reader/audience, I have found that the characters often seem almost sophomoric efforts, rather than the result of a complex playwright at the top of his game. In a large theatre, this tendency towards simplicity and declamation can be especially tantalizing for an actor and when I saw the production in 2000, I was a bit surprised at how much subtlety was lost through the necessities of performing for a large playhouse.
The movie, however, bears no marks of crassness or lack of subtlety. On the contrary, the performances of Fiennes, Cox and Redgrave in particular stand out as examples of how blank verse on film, in the hands of experts, can express incredible psychological depth even in the most unexpected of places. Indeed, the acting across the board was stunning.
Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia delicately dances the line between being imperious and incestuous, yet she never comes across as being merely overbearing. She presents a woman who is proud, but proud because she is so utterly certain that she has a hold of that which is right. Her certainty drives her, inspires her son and eventually convinces him not to destroy Rome in the critical fifth act. I think her performance may very well be one of the most amazing performances I have ever seen if only because she manages to make Volumnia into a human being, filled with anger, pride, remorse and guilt, rather than a transcendent harpy or a totalitarian ideologue.
Cox, similarly, takes a character who, in my experience, has often been played for laughs – as the comic relief – and turns him into a fully fleshed out politician and friend of the Martius family. Cox has been rattling around Hollywood for years as a character actor and it somewhat saddens me that he has never got his hands into a leading part. Of course, in making Menenius into a much more serious figure, a few of the well worn speeches of the character had to go. The only one that I really missed was the “Belly” speech in act one, but I appreciate the choice that Fiennes & Logan made in cutting that speech at that particular point in the film. (I’ll explain what I mean by that in a second.)
Fiennes took on a particularly difficult job in acting, directing and helping with the script for this piece. In every capacity, he succeeded beyond my expectations. Coriolanus is a character forged in war, yet who refuses to show his scars in the marketplace, trumpeting about his own deeds. Fiennes’ great observation about the scars that Coriolanus wears on his body is that they are not nearly as deep or as penetrating as the scars that he carries in his own mind. Here is a Coriolanus whose very public breakdown can be explained by his own experiences in the wars. It is not quite right to suggest that Fiennes’ Coriolanus suffers from PTSD, but the suggestion of a psychological rupture is hinted at repeatedly throughout the film. Fiennes has an understanding of the character that is only possible for having sat in the role for years – in this case, over a decade. The production that I saw back in 2000 had hints of this, though that production was far more interested in situating itself against the aftermath of the Balkan Wars. Now, after a decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, the violence of the piece carried out in urban settings against a terrified and bleeding population has far more resonance for audiences in the English speaking world. Coriolanus’ inner wounds tear him apart more certainly than the final murder by the Volces. Fiennes interpretation of the role is a brilliant commentary on today’s militarism and our own expectations of the soldier when back from the wars.
Gerard Butler, John Kani, Lubna Azabal, and James Nesbitt each stood out in their own ways. Butler was an excellent foil – never demanding too much attention from the piece. That said, there was something missing about his acceptance of Coriolanus at his table in act four. I’m not sure quite what it was, but it is one of the few scenes in the film (if not the only one) that I would ask them to do over again. Everything was there, but some magic spark.
Truth be told, I am not sure that I am remotely qualified to critique John Kani, who is not quite a hero of mine, but whose past as an actor and activist and whose body of work I am awestruck by. He exuded an almost regal power of presence that stood over the film. It was just a pleasure to hear his voice.
One of the smartest choices that I think Fiennes made in the film was to restructure the story out of the five act model into a three act model. That is, modern films don’t tend to sit well in five act structures, but almost every film these days is built around a three act model. The first act here was basically act one and parts of act two of the original play. Act two of the film comprised most of acts two and three, while the third act of the film was acts four and five of the play.
I say this was smart because act one’s focus on action, especially in its cut and reduced form, meant that the audience was slowly introduced to the blank verse rather than having full speeches (like the Belly speech) right off the bat. Most of the film’s first act was a series of action sequences, which were as well choreographed as anything you would find in a movie about Iraq or Afghanistan like, say, the Hurt Locker. This early focus on the violence of war and the sheer, single minded determination of Coriolanus allows the audience to get to know him as a character later on, when he is standing for election to the Consulship. Thus, the focus is not on Caius Martius’ class baiting bigotry, but on his pride and mental fragmentation due to the violence of war.
Well, I could go on, but I will end it here. I think this is something that I may end up writing an article about someday. Easily one of the best adaptations I have ever seen and I am so glad that someone has FINALLY done a version of Coriolanus on film. Besides, now I can show the film in my upcoming Shakespeare’s Histories and Tragedies class. Excellent. Highly recommended.