#19. Coriolanus (2011)
If, like me, you’re an American with a functioning cortex, then the current political climate looks dire, with presidential candidates presented to the public precisely like any other capitalistic commodity by public relations and branding firms, with an almost absolute loathing for polysyllabic words or anything resembling actual ideas, plans,or philosophies about governance, and thus the most wonderfully alarming Shakespeare film to watch right now would be the Ralph Fiennes’s masterpiece, Coriolanus.
Coriolanus is the story of a fierce general of the Roman army whose prowess makes him a likely candidate for consul, or chief magistrate, of Rome. Reluctantly, he agrees to be considered for the great title, but he is a soldier, and cannot bring himself to show off his war wounds to civilians or otherwise sell his experience as a soldier to the people or persuade them that he is likeable or someone they should identify with. Most soldiers cannot imagine his mind, the life he has lived in defense and promotion of Rome, so the citizens of this republic are even less capable of understanding him, and he really doesn’t want to be understood by them–or reduce himself to someone who would be understood by them. This does not please certain tribunes, who rile up protesters until eventually instead of naming him consul, Rome banishes Coriolanus.
Coriolanuis then, having gone a bit insane from being exiled by the country he has fought so desperately for, faces Tullus Aufidius, his old enemy from the last war. Although they hate each other, their clash is such an intimate, unequivocal way that their bond is actually much stronger than that they felt for their countries, their families, even, and they combine forces to attack Rome.
Ralph Fiennes is an amazing reader of Shakespeare. His voice is an exquisite instrument only hinted at in previous film roles. (He did win a Tony for a stage production of Hamlet in 1995.) Really, Coriolanus requires someone of stature, intelligence, and a booming voice, as the part is a truly rare one. The part is likely to come off goofy if not played to perfection by a master actor.
Coriolanus has an enviable supporting cast as well. Brian Cox plays Menenius Agrippa, a senator of Rome, but one almost with the spirit of a Shakespearean fool or clown, a tragic figure who cannot endure his inability to stop the hubris of the tribunes in their presumption that Coriolanus was of no use to Rome because he had defeated all of Rome’s enemies, that Coriolanus would evaporate without his country. Despite his ironical outlook, Menenius is ashamed that he could not unify Rome politically, or keep the citizens from feeding their rage against their own sense of helplessness by attacking a man who protected them, but did not love them, and who felt compelled to protect them from themselves.
Volumnia and Virgilia, the steely mother and the nerve-wracked wife of Coriolanus, are played to perfection by Vanessa Redgrave and Jessica Chastain.
Impressively, Chastain’s English accent and enunciation of Shakespeare seems like an equal match for the impressive cast. As a wife grieving over the injuries and loss that might come to her husband, as a wife who is ill-suited for her martial spouse, yet who nonetheless loves him profoundly, Chastain is not only compelling, but agonizingly lovely, reminiscent of Claire Bloom in Olivier’s Richard III.
Gerard Butler, of 300 fame, plays Tullus Aufidius, Coriolanus’s foe and later ally.
Butler in fact manages to match Fiennes in gravitas and physicality, and is able to deliver Shakespearean lines much more fluently than Frank Miller’s. (Fiennes is a better director than Zack Snyder, obviously. Uwe Boll may be a better director than Zack Snyder.)
The contemporary setting for this Coriolanus works quite well, and unlike Richard Loncraine’s Richard III, has no campy side-effects from the time-switch. Like so many of Shakespeare’s plays, the psychology at work feels totally contemporary, and the theme–that there can be no dignity or sanity in politics, and to try to have either is to annihilate oneself–is rather depressing, yet this Coriolanus is also sublime, and entertaining to watch, and gives one’s imagination room to think in, for the politics and realities of our own day.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.