I recall an interview Ralph Fiennes gave once, on The Daily Show, where he talked about the tiny transition period he goes through when he starts watching Shakespeare. The Bard’s word choice and manner of speech, being now half a millenniumish old, are very different from what our ears are used to. So there’s an mildly difficult period while our brain adjusts, lasting perhaps twenty minutes or so. I’ve always envisioned it like breathing the liquid-air concoction from Cameron’s The Abyss: you hate it for a few moments and feel like you want to kill yourself, but then you calm down and everything seems normal.
A bloody mess
Maybe knowing Fiennes’s philosophy about this ‘adjustment period’ is the key to unlocking Coriolanus’s bizarre structure. Being Fiennes’s directorial debut, my expectations were high. For pretty much the entire first reel, Coriolanus seems like it’s going to be a bloody, high-octane action film. Its documentaryish shaky-cam and rapid editing pace resemble latter-day Bigelow and Greengrass. Soldiers race through and around buildings, fire guns, get hit. Explosions, shouting; drum and colour. Sound editors earn their salary. There’s nothing to distinguish what we see from countless other action/war films, other than the characters’ very peculiar speech patterns.
Ah, but the speech is the key! Fiennes is no fool—this has to be his way of easing his audience into the world and, most importantly, language of Shakespeare. By the time the fighting stops and Martius returns to Rome, we’re used to this archaic parlance and it is no longer a distraction. This structural technique, when considering the film as a whole, is rather shrewd.
So now our bloodlust is sated, phraseology receptors calibrated, and Fiennes can get into the meat of his film—namely, making Shakespeare’s ideas understandable and relevant. Now, here I should mention that I’m not going to bother synopsising the plot. I assume your familiarity with Coriolanus, or at the very least the existence of Spark Notes and Wikipedia.
Now, my professors always taught me that Shakespeare totally sides with the commoners in Coriolanus; I’m not so sure that Fiennes’s film does. This isn’t a criticism, just interesting. The few identifiable stand-ins the film gives us for the Roman citizens (which are named in John Logan’s script but not in Shakespeare’s) are every bit as confrontational, jeering, and mocking as Martius can be. They do nothing to engender our sympathy, and when Fiennes goes on his tirades against them (‘What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues / That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion / Make yourselves scabs?’), you sympathise.
They also seem to be considering all the wrong things when deciding who should be Consul. Consider the scene after Martius receives the Coriolanus honorific. The public know that Coriolanus has fought for them, and borne numerous scars upon his person in battle, but they need to feel loved. That is, they must be appropriately pandered to. From John Logan’s script:
Pray you now, if it may stand with the tune of your voices that I may be Consul.
You have deserved nobly of your country,
and you have not deserved nobly.
You have been a scourge to her enemies;
you have been a rod to her friends
You have not indeed loved the common
You should account me the more virtuous
that I have not been common in my love
Therefore, beseech you, I may be
No, no; brave deeds in their service aren’t enough to win over the public. Someone must love them.
I want to bring up two important points here. The first is, the stellar adaptation work by Fiennes and Logan. Shakespeare always adds in expository information so that no matter what seat you had in the house, you’d understand what was going on. But on screen, where you have close-ups and the opportunity for more naturalistic acting, you don’t actually need all the words all the time. Here are the parts omitted from the last line of Martuis’s I quoted:
…I will, sir, flatter my sworn brother, the people, to earn a dearer estimation of them; ’tis a condition they account gentle: and since the wisdom of their choice is rather to have my hat than my heart, I will practise the insinuating nod and be off to them most counterfeitly; that is, sir, I will counterfeit the bewitchment of some popular man and give it bountiful to the desirers… (II.iii)
In the play, Martius flat out says ‘You want to be pandered to? Fine. I’ll pander to your sorry ass just to make you like me.’ And it works. We don’t need this dialogue in the film, because Fiennes conveys this beautifully with his face and body language.
The second point is, just reading the text of the play, it’s not at all clear that this behaviour from the commoners is necessarily contemptible. But in the film, it pretty much is. Fiennes, to my eyes, is clearly justifying Coriolanus’s detestation for the great unwashed of Rome. And why not? Ignoring someone’s deeds in favour of ersatz endearment is a pretty piteous and unsophisticated stance. Good thing that doesn’t still happen today!
Scholars continue to consider Coriolanus one of Shakespeare’s weakest tragedies, due mainly to the shallowness of the main character and his apparently single-minded actions. I’ve never really been on board with this interpretation. I remember arguing with a teacher in high school that just because Martius never speaks to the audience, like so many other of the Bard’s characters, doesn’t mean he’s shallow; it just means he keeps his emotions packed tightly away, from the characters onstage and the gods in the upper balconies.
No, what’s always bothered me about Coriolanus is Martius’s capitulation to Volumnia in act V. All the rage, all the contempt, all the political calculations and prowess we have seen—all undone by some maternal shaming. From Logan’s script:
…softness is not a note she plays naturally. She knows it. Her natural aggressiveness comes out, anger and outrage gradually boiling to the surface:
Thinks thou it honorable for a noble man
Still to remember wrongs? Daughter, speak
He cares not for your weeping. Speak
Perhaps thy childishness will move him more
Than can our reasons. There’s no man in
the world More bound to his mother, yet here
he lets me prate
Like one in the stocks!
She is assaulting him now, on the attack:
Thou hast never in thy life
Showed thy dear mother any courtesy,
When she, poor hen,
Has clucked thee to the wars and safely
Loaded with honor. Say my request’s
And spurn me back; and the gods will
That thou restrains from me the duty which
To a mother’s part belongs!
Coriolanus can take no more, turns and begins to walk away–Volumnia reacts like lightning — grabbing Virgilia and Young Martius and dragging them to the dirt with her–
Down! Let us shame him with our knees!
She claws at the dirt — like Hecuba — keening — a shocking explosion of raw emotion — almost an incantation:
Down! An end! This is the last. So we
will home to Rome,
And die among our neighbors.
Yeah, sure, Volumnia is a formidable figure, and yeah, it’s clear (or at least told to us) that she is intimately responsible for shaping Martius’s military aptitude, but it still feels wrong somehow. Imagine if There Will Be Blood had ended with Plainview saying, ‘Sure Eli, your plight has touched me; here’s some money. I’m finished!’
Fiennes doesn’t solve this problem for me. Vanessa Redgrave is a screen legend, of course, and out of her mouth Shakespeare’s words flow with force and grace. But I still don’t buy that the Coriolanus we’ve seen in the film up until that moment would be swayed.
After thinking about this for a good long while, I’m perfectly willing to consider that this isn’t Fiennes’s problem, or Redgrave’s, or even Shakespeare’s. It could just be my problem. Given how powerful and stubborn we’ve seen Martius be for five acts, it’s undoubtedly my preference that he stick to his guns and give Rome a big FUCK YOU—even with his family in his warpath. What interests me about characters like Daniel Plainview—or Jack Torrence, or Christopher McCandless, or Hugh Glass—is watching their flaws play out fully to their natural conclusions. I’m still convinced that Martius’s change of heart violates his character, that Shakespeare wrote it to give his play a tidy ending.
The little death
So, let’s consider the ending, which may be the weakest aspect of Fiennes’s film. In the play it’s a showdown in ‘Antium ; a public place.’ Aufidius calls Martius a traitor for caving to his mother and sparing Rome, and dispatches him forthwith. Much like Act II scene iii, there is a crowd, and a sense that this an epic showdown—not as personal as the battle between Hal and Hotspur in Henry IV, Part I, but just as momentous.
However, in Fiennes’s film, the final face-off takes place in the middle of an empty street, in the middle of nowhere. Far from being public, it’s just Aufidius and a handful of conspirators, who fell Martius quickly like a street dog.
Well…you know…maybe that’s the point. Martius betrayed his nature by caving to his mother, causing Aufidius (and me!) to consider him a kind of traitor. His last little speech to the Volscians tries to portray his cowering as some kind of great victory, in the manner of the politicians he has heretofore hated. As Cominus previously said, ‘It is held / that valour is the chiefest virtue / and most dignifies the haver.’ Well, at this point, Martius cannot haz valour. He doesn’t deserve an epic demise, in the manner of a great warrior; being quickly dispatched in the middle of nowhere does seem strangely apropos, if not cinematic. You know, I think I need to see this film again; it really has made me consider the play differently.
A brawny, gay lovefest
Speaking of Aufidius, I want to make one small point about his character. Fiennes plays the relationship between the two warriors as one of mutual fascination and respect. Okay, fine, this is a totally valid interpretation. There are hints that there might be a little something more behind that…
I loved the maid I married; never man
Sighed truer breath. But that I see thee
Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold.
Coriolanus glances to him, perhaps a little disturbed or
embarrassed by the intensity of Aufidius’ words.
Aufidius steps away from him, gestures for Coriolanus to sit.
Why, thou Mars, I tell thee,
We have a power on foot, and I had purpose
Once more to hew thy target from thy
Or lose mine arm for it. Thou hast beat me out
Twelve several times, and I have nightly since
Dreamt of encounters ‘twixt thyself and
Okay, intense, but not really far out there, right? But here is an Aufidius-spoken passage that John Logan leaves out:
I have nightly since
Dreamt of encounters ‘twixt thyself and me;
We have been down together in my sleep,
Unbuckling helms, fisting each other’s throat,
And waked half dead with nothing. (IV.v)
I’m sure this played differently in Elizabethan England, but to these modern ears, Aufidius wants to fuck. Anyway, I don’t really have anything useful to say about this, other than I found it very interesting that it’s one of the things Logan chose remove from his adaptation. There’s already so much here that adding a brawny, gay lovefest might have been slight overkill.
A huge talent
If Coriolanus does not immediately prove Fiennes a brilliantly auteurist director, it solidifies him in the pantheon of great screen actors. Here he delivers his most penetrating and frightening performance since Amon Göth in Schindler’s List. His eyes are so intense—his gaze leaps out of the screen and punches you right in the dick. If Daniel Plainview had become a Roman soldier, Coriolanus would be his name.
So, to sum up, this dude knows his Shakespeare. I’ve yet to see The Invisible Woman, Ralph Fiennes’s second film; but I know now that if he ever does another Shakespeare adaptation, whatever it is, I will be absolutely sure to catch it in the theatres.