Titans from the Royal Shakespeare Company bring a new cinematic adaptation to Coriolanus; a tragedy of a war hero whose pride and refusal to court with the Roman people destroy his efforts to become a consul. Revenge thus swells in his mind to punish those who exiled him as a traitor and destroy the city he once so bravely protected.
For his directorial debut, Ralph Fiennes (The Hurt Locker) chose a project he performed on stage more than a decade ago and felt the themes encountered by Caius Martius Coriolanus still resonated to modern times. The rationalising of grain supplies in ancient Rome could be a metaphor for our economical and financial crisis resulting in vast protests around the world. Though like many senior political leaders, Coriolanus feels everyone should have their place and his is nowhere near the public. He’s encouraged to visit a market place to convince the people he should be elected as the next Consol and yet mutters in the car on route that he dare ‘trouble the poor with begging’. The people are shown to be fickle as they chant saviour, hero and leader one hour but after manipulation tactics by some Tribunes they now call him a traitor, liar and a disease. The tempestuous relationship between Coriolanus and Rome has its peaks and troughs until his banishment leads him to join the Volscians, Rome’s neighboring enemy, and with their general – attack Rome out of vengeance.
As adaptations go, this isn’t a period piece like Michael Radford’s The Merchant of Venice (2004) nor a radical reclassification like Julie Taymor’s The Tempest (2010) – the conceptual and visual elements have been realigned and the focus relies on Shakespeare’s text and its deliverance from an all star cast including Gerard Butler (300) as Tullus Aufidius, a brooding, beefy opponent to Coriolanus and general to the invading Volscian army. Brian Cox (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) plays Menenius, a two faced senator playing hands with Coriolanus as well as the mob – who seem to take light from the scheming Tribune Sicinius, played devilishly here by James Nesbitt (Outcast). While Fiennes’ Coriolanus takes much of the limelight, Venessa Redgrave’s (The Whistleblower) Volumnia, Coriolanus’ proud and boastful mother, absorbs much of the attention when she appears on screen uttering her eloquent lines and instantly coerces the audience to pay attention. Satellite feeds occasionally appear with John Snow (Channel 4) surprisingly reading out the news.
The combat scenes, of which there is little, was crafted by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker), creating much of the noise and explosion but little destruction was seen in an already graffiti invested council estate with its violated vehicles and rotting bodies – which happens to be in Belgrade, Serbia where it was mainly shot. The audience would need to pay close attention for the subtle, visual clues relating to the themes in the play. Coriolanus paints his face with blood from a dead Volscian soldier and later encourages to his own army to fight on screaming ‘make you a sword of me’. Delicately curved plaits seen on Volumnia’s hair resemble wreaths traditionally worn in ancient Rome and when Menenius claims that ‘Coriolanus has grown from man to dragon‘ – a subtle dragon tattoo appears on the rear of Coriolanus’ neck.
Fiennes’ Coriolanus isn’t the most dramatic adaption you will see this year or any year. Shakespeare’s plays are made for the theatre and most adaptations struggle for the simple reason that its stage acting isn’t designed for film acting. On stage the limited space demands the actors to perform with their voices and gestures but on screen it looks rather abstained, motionless and at times a little disappointing. However for his directorial debut, Fiennes proves he is more than capable of utilising an amazing cast and performs himself with great valour that when he sprays saliva after delivering a powerful speech, the audience would need to check if some of it fell on their faces.
Returning victorious from his initial bout with Aufidius, Volumnia utters a fitting description of our hero and the film – “These are the ushers of Marcius: before him he carries noise, and behind him he leaves tears: Death, that dark spirit, in ‘s nervy arm doth lie; Which, being advanced, declines, and then men die”. Indeed men do die. Tears are shed. And the noise will move you. Albeit, gently.
Reviewed by Vaskar S. Kayastha