This faithful yet radical reinterpretation of the William Shakespeare play Coriolanus was one of those films that had its North American Premiere at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival. I opted to wait for general distribution, gambling that it would be released eventually, and it hit the art circuit in the Boston area this weekend.
An aside. Unlike decades ago, there really is no theater that shows other than mainstream films in Boston proper, and there hasn’t been for some time. Thankfully, a few venues are still available in Greater Boston. There are two first-run Landmark Cinemas: one in Cambridge and one in Waltham. There is also a retrospective relic house in West Newton that shows a mix of second run foreign films, retrospectives, and first run and indy features. There used to be several in Cambridge, and one of these days I want to blog about the late, great Orson Welles Theater. But that’s for another time.
Coriolanus features a stellar cast, as is typical with a UK production. Ralph Fiennes plays Caius Martius Coriolanus, looking much like a 20-year younger Ben Kingsley with a fiery, spittle laden high volume delivery, and a shaven skull. Gerard Butler plays Coriolanus’ arch-enemy, Tullus Aufidius with as sure a resolve as Coriolanus. But he’s more a man of the people. Coriolanus just cannot abide the great unwashed middle class, the rabble of democracy. The ubiquitous Jessica Chastain is Coriolanus’ wife. The mother of his child who keeps the home fires burning for her man of war. The war widow. Brian Cox is Menenius, an ally of Coriolanus who tries to keep him on the narrow political path of survival during a time of peace. Peace is not handled well by Coriolanus who is more comfortable in the heat of battle than he is in the in the heat of politics, where he is not the commander, not the final arbiter of the people’s needs. He’s not even a ‘let them east cake sort off guy. Coriolanus is more of let them starve for all I care guy. War and Peace are debated in Coriolanus in several places. This is from Act IV, Scene V:
Let me have war, say I; it exceeds peace as far as
day does night; it’s spritely, waking, audible, and
full of vent. Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy;
mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible; a getter of more
bastard children than war’s a destroyer of men.
Who is this? Rick Santorum?
Which brings me to Vanessa Redgrave.
Vanessa Redgrave is his mother, Volumnia. Redgrave is undoubtedly an almost pitch-perfect actor, and like so many UK actresses, has moved seamlessly from young romantic lead roles to elder mothers. She is as beautiful as ever too. Her face is now sublimely wrinkled, yet her beauty just cannot be hidden.. Looking at her IMBD profile (122 titles starting in 1956) yields a couple of previous Shakespeare roles: Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1956), Rosalind in As You Like It (1963). She has an impressive resume with roles in many adaptations of the world’s great literature to the screen: A Farewell to Arms, A Man for All Seasons (twice), Camelot, The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Sea Gull, Howard’s End, The Bostonians, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Mrs. Dalloway, Crime and Punishment, and Atonement (yes, I’ll include this one in the classics category). I’m sure I’ve missed some. Thoughts cross my mind….when the 75-year old actress dies, it will be noted to be sure. How will her passing be noted, stacked up against the self-destroying life of Whitney Houston? Redgrave’s politics were held against her, but she was so great that she never lacked for work. She’s a courageous woman, and one of my role models in that she never shrank from her beliefs. Look at me. I’m talking about her like she’s already gone. She’s not. Finally, I should mention her major award-winning performances: Julia (1977 Oscar), and at Cannes (Morgan!, 1966 and Isadora 1969). Many wins elsewhere and many, many more nominations. My odd choice is Blow-Up for complicated reasons: I’m twenty-one when the film came out and I saw it, a senior in high school….things are about to blow-up in my personal life. We have such complicated relationships with our culture. Sometimes it stands alone, but mostly it’s inextricably mixed up with our lives and times. There’s no getting around that. When the David Hemmings characters stumbles into a rock concert, it’s like there’s a roomful of zombies. The band is certainly energetic and rocking, but the audience stares ahead, barely moving and sits on their hands. This was a personal metaphor for what I thought of as my support system around this time. I thought that the great middle of the country was sitting on their hands. The only thing that stirred the crowd into a frenzy was when Jeff Beck (The Yardbirds) smashes his guitar. It captures a bit of how I felt at the time. The war was looming and the blue bus was calling me, us. Which brings me ’round to the ‘purpose’ of this post – if any posts here have a true purpose, which I mostly suspect they do not.
Shakespeare’s Coriolanus was set in pre-Imperial Rome. Ralph Fiennes (who not only plays the title role, but directed as well) took this opportunity to move the context to what appears to be a post-apocalyptic Rome. The advantage is that the context and meaning of the war is virtually unchanged, though neatly time shifted. Whereas Shakespeare placed the time frame of his other Roman plays (Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar) in the first Century AD, he shifts Coriolanus back two centuries. Fiennes time shifts ahead to what may be later in the 21st Century.
The original play was primarily interested in the historical struggle of moving from a monarchy to a broad-based regime. So too the filmed version which is interested in the struggle of movements from military rule to a citizen based democracy. Mostly we’ve left the remnants of monarchy and imperial rule (aka imperialism) behind, but have replaced these with the rule of naked power (as opposed to ritualistic power) – military dictatorship. What they have in common is absolutism. Imperialism was loosely countenanced as caretaker rule – rule over a people who could not rule themselves, so the argument and rationale went. This is the same set of standards that military dictatorships invoke. From Burma at the top to Syria down a step to Egypt and Libya, we can see the play ‘played’ out today. The struggles and the themes of rule, the themes of leadership by caveat are the same in Coriolanus as they are today. We call it ‘nation-building.
Coriolanus is the protector and war hero of Rome. But he commits the sin of hubris and is brought down. Hello Quadaffi. He has such contempt for the people that he cannot even bring himself to acknowledge their presence. He is, as they say often of politicians these days, isolated from the common man. Besides this flaw, his Achilles heel turns out to be his mother, who has raised him to be a warrior and dominated his career. His friend and protector is Menenius, a gifted politician, a negotiator, a master manipulator, a man willing to compromise who tries to nudge Coriolanus in all the directions that he considers are his path for survival.
The film opens with a riotous mob at the gates of the granary. The people are starving. There is a debate taking place amongst them about the cause of their situation. From Act I, Scene I:
I say unto you, what he hath done famously, he did
it to that end: though soft-conscienced men can be
content to say it was for his country he did it to
please his mother and to be partly proud; which he
is, even till the altitude of his virtue.
After back room manipulation and political intrigue, and despite the best efforts of his friends, his family, and his allies, Coriolanus is exiled. In a speech before he stomps out of the Senate, he shows the depths of his contempt for democratic rule. From Act III, Scene III:
You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you;
Coriolanus may well be one of the least popular of Shakespeare’s plays. There are not many characters to like and it is Shakespeare’s most ambiguous play. But it is, maybe more than most, a Shakespeare play for our times, and kudos to Ralph Fiennes for attempting to reinvigorate it for our world.
P.S. – Aftermath of War
After my ‘separation’ (an interesting use of the word) from service in the Vietnam War in August 1969 I made my way to the University of Wisconsin in Madison for post-graduate study of Milton and William Shakespeare. This lasted only one year, but I read Paradise Lost (indeed!) and all of Shakespeare’s plays that year. I had a set of the plays in those little green paperbacks (Viking I think they were), one of which was constantly in my back pocket. I had an audio recording checked out from the library that I attempted to return through a library return box as I was driving out of town. This was 1970 of course, and the format in those days was still vinyl. The multi-record set would not fit in the slot of course. It was a Sunday and the library was closed. I took it with me with every intention of returning it when I got to where I was going – home.
I never got home.
You can’t do that again they say.
I got sidetracked to Boston and never really left.
And I never did get that damned record returned.
A recording of Coriolanus.