As most of my readers know, I teach and I love Shakespeare, or at least I love and admire the works attributed to a man called Shakespeare the Elizabethan playwright (but that is a debate for another day). I nearly equally admire Ralph Fiennes, who I saw play Hamlet live at the Hackney Theatre in London. Admittedly, however, I am wholly unfamiliar with ‘Coriolanus,’ one of the playwrights lesser known plays – one that I only now know anything about, because of Fiennes (who also directed) new film of the same name. I cheated a tad and looked at summaries, so as to not go in completely blind. I went forth with few expectations and knowing I have so far loathed all but a couple modern adaptations of the plays. Fiennes manages, with a keen eye and an exceptional cast, to offer a fairly decent, although script flawed, rendering of an obscure play.
The original drama takes place around 490 BC, when Rome became a republic but not yet a true democracy, and elections are controlled by rich patricians who court the approval of the hardworking plebeians, but Fiennes, in his director5ial debut has updated the play, although the plot stays essentially the same. Caius Martius—honored with the name Coriolanus upon his victory over the neighboring Volscian city of Corioles—is a respected commander promoted by the patricians as a civic leader. Ultimately, however, his seething contempt for the people turns them against him. After his political shunning by his own city’s people, he switches his allegiance to the Volscians.
Screenwriter, John Logan has modernized the play with press conferences, news reports and a chorus of TV talking heads, but for me anyway, his lead seems to lack depth of character at no fault of the actor who plays him – his transition from soldier to politician is hardly smooth, and Fiennes certainly does well with Coriolanus, but here the written material is weak. Even with Fiennes behind and in front of the camera, his character is truly hard to understand.
I saw Fiennes and Logan’s rendering as a political satire of sorts, and in this modernized state, even more so. It is considered a tragedy in its original form, as opposed to a history (since no one knows if the man Coriolanus even existed) and the R-rated ‘Coriolanus’ most certainly is tragic. Filming in Belgrade, Fiennes’ film is visually and dramatically masterful —it’s an Elizabethan drama with all the intensity of modern warfare and weaponry, but little more than that in the wholeness of it. Fiennes manages to shows the internal struggle (in spite of questionable adaptation) between the soldier and the politician and that is what is truly at the heart or core of this story. Fiennes may not be the most recognized or awarded actor (and hundreds of Harry Potter fans detest him), but his is an impressive talent. With sensitive, soulful eyes and a hardened, stark face, Fiennes breathes fire into Coriolanus and I loved watching him.
The balance of the cast, including Jessica Chastian (a new favorite of mine and a truly versatile actress), Vanessa Redgrave (a gifted film and Shakespearian veteran) and Gerard Butler (who shows some really acting chops here), work well with Fiennes both as star and director. At first, this contemporary rendering, complete with characters spewing iambic pentameter on modern television, seems a little strange and confusing, but once in full swing, it became, for me at least, as natural as everyday speech. In fact, I appreciated hearing the playwright done so well, even if I tend to scoff at versions that are not true to him in all ways – time period, costumes, and dialogue. Ultimately Coriolanus is a warrior, not a politician, and the playwright’s greatest accomplishment in the play, as with all of his tragic leads, lies in his ability to capture bizarre melding of his character’s – with emphasis on things like arrogance, humility, and the apparent alienation that accompanies the multi-dimensional attributes of such complex characters – characteristics which ultimately result in his (or her) downfall – give us the inevitable tragic ending.
I am placing a B- in my grade book. I still won’t be adding ‘Coriolanus’ to my long list of beloved Elizabethan plays, nor will I add it to my curriculum, but I did enjoy Fiennes as both actor and director. I hope he takes on more of this source work in the future.