War Becomes A Man: A Modern Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, starring Ralph Fiennes and Gerard Butler

By Daniel Garrett

Directed by Ralph Fiennes
Production Designer Ricky Eyres
Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd
Featuring Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain
The Weinstein Company, 2010
(Released 2011)

What moves an individual does not always translate into a common tongue. A man’s principles and purpose can lead to an accomplishment that gains him fame and honor, but the respect of the people is not always as important as the task itself. In Shakespeare’s tragic play Coriolanus, the military general Caius Martius, a fighter since he was sixteen, is a man who demands a great deal of himself, defends his city-state and becomes a great warrior, and, following a battle in Corioles, is expected to be elected consul in the city calling itself Rome, a place in which democracy does not mean shared advantage, a place divided between wealth and poverty. The senators approve Caius Martius’s appointment as consul, and as a matter of course Caius Martius is expected to get the approval of the populace by speaking to them, showing them his war wounds, and asking for their support. He does speak to the folk, but does not show his wounds, and yet they approve him, until dissent is encouraged by the tribunes of the people, Brutus and Sicinius, who fear that Caius Martius, renamed Coriolanus, will oppose their use of power: Brutus and Sicinius manipulate the crowd with fear of lost liberties and outrage over insults. The fickle nature of the electorate is infuriating to Coriolanus, confirming his worst estimation of the common people. The scenario allows for the consideration of the individual’s relation to community, and the roots of power. Is power rewarded for valor or manipulation? Is an individual’s pride to be respected or humbled, before he is accepted? Is the community able to hear of its own failures and limitations? Is political critique based on facts, or petty resentment of privilege, the real motivation of activist movements? In Coriolanus, a modern, multicultural dramatic action film as directed and starring Ralph Fiennes, gives us a driven, efficient, isolated figure who refuses to indulge the bland, pandering speech that is thought of as politically correct. Caius Martius Coriolanus refuses to show his wounds, two fresh wounds added to the twenty-five he had before. Coriolanus says exactly what he thinks, no matter how insulting to others or subversive of his own ambition. His self-possession is key to his self-destruction.

In the Fiennes film production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, focused on a city that calls itself Rome, although the landscape is actually Eastern European (Serbia), recalling the recent history of Balkan strife, the bald Caius Martius Coriolanus wears the olive battle uniform we have come to recognize, and uses contemporary artillery. This is a world of economic strife, hunger, mass protests, militant policing, automatic weaponry, great tanks, constant television reportage, rumor and suspicion. Coriolanus stands out in a competitive, hostile world; and whereas others—activists, politicians, and soldiers—come together to converse and conspire in order to achieve goals, Coriolanus is able to act alone. In one instance, he enters enemy territory alone and defeats many men. He prefers his own pride to the praise of others. Coriolanus is a hero, but his arrogant, fierce attitude inclines some to see him as a villain: he tells the truth, as he sees it, to people who do not want to hear it. He despises the mob; and he, the son in a wealthy family, does not understand how a community, after deprivations, can become a mob.

Caius Martius Coriolanus’s war-loving mother, Volumnia, is played by the handsome, lean, white-haired Vanessa Redgrave; his loving but apprehensive wife Virgilia is played by the red-haired, sensitive Jessica Chastain; and his principal military opponent, the general for the rebelling Volscians, Tullus Aufidius, with whom Coriolanus has a hate-love relationship, is played by Gerard Butler, bearded, full-bodied, muscular, as an ordinary man transformed by mission—ambitious and earthy, friendly and ruthless. (I do not know why I was surprised by how attractive and good Butler is as Tullus Aufidius.) Aufidius is the lion Martius hunts. Between the warriors Coriolanus and Aufidius is a sublime eroticism, though one not fulfilled in sex, an eroticism founded on the passion for courage and force. John Kani, a South African actor, plays General Cominius, a benevolent figure, and recalls images of Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela. James Nesbitt is Brutus, and Paul Jesson is Sicinius, two tribunes of the people. Brian Cox plays a senator, Menenius, who is a friend to Caius Martius’s mother, and helpful to Coriolanus’s career; and Menenius seems decent, intelligent, warm. One rebuke to the contempt that Martius has for the many is the assemblage of diverse, expressive faces. I have no complaints about the particulars of the production—the cinematography, production design, costuming, or music; and yet the whole thing may take us too close to a world we know already: in one scene, Coriolanus participates in a televised political meeting, intending to restore his appointment as consul—and, sitting among a panel as part of a familiar talk show setting, Coriolanus begins by praising the generous gods and the spirit of communal love, a palliative rhetoric, but he is angered by accusations and is soon shouting curses.

In the film of Coriolanus directed by Ralph Fiennes, everything moves quickly, with Caius Martius Coriolanus exiled, becoming a wanderer, finding Aufidius and being accepted by him, and beginning their shared campaign against Rome. The mother who prefers war and honor to love and sex, and whose words became her son’s conscience, is compelled to beg her son for her city’s peace. Is it mother love, or the resentment of others, more than his own pride, which finally defeats Coriolanus in this story? It is a film of beauty, elemental, with a grim modernity, and thoughtful. Yet, the film viewer does not always maintain a grasp of Shakespeare’s language, which is the real place in which his characters and ideas live. The film is compelling, and seems like a more intelligent rendering of some of the conflicts in matters of society and state than we are used to getting from popular art.

The human being is a complex creature, more indecipherable than most of us are inclined to recognize, and art is his principal realm of revelation. If it is difficult to say what is true of an individual, it may be even more difficult to say what is true of a community—and that makes it more necessary to be able to see, hear, and think clearly about what people do together. Society itself is a continuing conspiracy. The man who tries to speak the truth about society is called artist, devil, fool, genius, griot, journalist, madman, moralist, philosopher, prophet, radical, traitor. Yet, Shakespeare was a speaker of truths. William Shakespeare, the great and lasting writer of theatrical comedies and tragedies in the Elizabethan age, wrote about family, love, sex, power, and violence; and part of what makes Shakespeare great is the glimpse we get of a more profound perception, and the promise of another way of being.

Coriolanus, adapted by John Logan, is the first film Ralph Fiennes has directed. It was shot in about eight weeks. In a London film review apparently appearing in print in The Observer and online in The Guardian’s web pages, Philip French declared this “Ralph Fiennes’s bloody and bold directorial debut, Coriolanus, magnificently filmed in a present-day setting” (January 21, 2012). That critic found the parallels between past and present honest, satisfying, thrilling, as had Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes had played the lead character on stage in year 2000; and he wanted to play the part again, feeling there was more to explore: and here and now, the character seems indivisible from him, and there is no higher praise. Having appeared in Wuthering Heights, Strange Days, Schindler’s List, The English Patient, Oscar and Lucinda, Onegin, The End of the Affair, Spider, Maid in Manhattan, Harry Potter, The Constant Gardener, The Reader, In Bruges, The Duchess, and The Hurt Locker, Ralph Fiennes, who had studied at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and became part of the National Theatre then the Royal Shakespeare Company, long ago proved himself as an actor. “There’s the sheer pleasure of hearing these words spoken by an actor like Mr. Fiennes, whose phrasing is so brilliant that you might be tempted to close your eyes if his physical performance weren’t equally mesmerizing,” declared film critic Manohla Dargis in her commentary on Coriolanus, which had opened in late 2011 in Los Angeles and New York, commentary published in the pages of The New York Times (December 1, 2011). The film has few quiet, slow moments. It is focused on action and emotion, rather than contemplation. Yet, I think that some of the majesty, some of the tragedy, may have been lost.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.