I recently saw Ralph Fiennes’s labor of love—his adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus—and I fully loved it. The movie is beautiful, gritty, unadorned, and truly unique in its interpretations of the characters and the play. It’s also a real war movie, with things to say about human nature, politics, and violence. Fiennes directed and stars in the film, which also features Jessica Chastain, Vanessa Redgrave, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, and loads of other great performers. I was set up to love this movie. I love Shakespeare, I love this specific play, I love Roman soldiers with loyalty complexes, I love genius/nemesis relationships, and I’m fascinated/repulsed by the effects of war and violence on the psyche. There wasn’t even a snowball’s chance in hell that I wasn’t going to love this movie.
Coriolanus is about a Roman soldier who’s great at fighting and horrible at talking to people. I mean, it’s Shakespeare, so he’s not ineloquent, he just hates common people/”the public.” But the dude takes out a city by himself—no, actually. It’s in the text. He goes in and everybody’s like: “Oh dear god, he went in alone. Well, we’ll never see him again. Sniffle sniffle” but then he bursts out, alone, covered in blood and says: “Why are you guys just sitting around? Oh, don’t make a face, it’s not my blood. Let’s go, you pansies” (you know, except in iambs). Anyway… Coriolanus = awesome fighter, horrible politician. His mother and military friends try to get him elected as consul and he just yells at people and causes riots and gets himself banished. Then he decides to team up with his arch nemesis and attack Rome (the city he fought for, and the city that banished him).
Even though the play is set in Rome, the movie is set in “A Place Calling Itself Rome”—it could be Eastern Europe, it could be the Middle East, it could be anywhere. The Volcsians are kept equally geographically vague. Everyone is in modern dress—there’s camo, guns, and newscasters. In general, the movie uses a combination of documentary-style and traditional cinematography, a lot of fast motion, and a minimalist soundscape, to immerse us in a gritty, grimy world of politics and modern warfare. The style of the movie sets us up for the bleak nihilism of this tragedy (and trust me, it’s a doozy).
We get precious few explanations: some words telling us where we are, and who we’re watching, some news updates (on Fidelis TV no less. I love me a good Easter Egg) telling us what we’re walking into, but otherwise the movie trusts us to watch carefully and figure it out. The actors generally use contemporary cadences, so that helps too—the language doesn’t feel as “Classical,” and thankgod it is nothing like the slampoetryfest that was the Montague boys of Luhrmann’s Romeo+Juliet. Although, to be honest, I’m not the one to determine whether or not the movie is easily understandable/accessible—I walked in already being able to quote bits of the play (I know it’s not obvious, but I’m a super dork). But I believe in the power of a modern Shakespeare, always have, always will, and this one focuses on telling the story of the plot clearly, so even if we don’t always know the name of the character we’re watching, we know what they’re doing, and whose side they’re on.
The acting in this movie is universally superb. The citizens are fascinating, visceral, and diverse as anything, Brian Cox is warm and gruffly endearing as the “friendly” senator Menenius, Paul Jesson and James Nesbitt are appropriately conniving and grounded as the tribunes, Jessica Chastain is stunning as Coriolanus’s wife, Virgilia, Vanessa Redgrave is moving and surprisingly human as his mother, Volumnia, and Gerard Butler is pretty darn near perfect in his portrayal of Aufidius—the leader of the Volces, the enemies of Rome. In the title role, Ralph Fiennes is decisive, subtle, and appropriately vitriolic, but he impressed me most as a director. It was clear that he spent the 10+ years between performing the role and making the movie thinking about the characters and the play, letting things resonate, settle, and distill into a very specific interpretation. I think where he surprised me most was with the increased exposure to Virgilia, and the execution of the relationship between Coriolanus and Aufidius. Both of these things were lovely surprises.
In the play, Coriolanus’s wife, Virgilia, doesn’t say a whole lot, and often wilts in Volumnia’s shadow. Volumnia is Coriolanus’s mother and she is a force to be reckoned with—she goes on and on about how she would rather Coriolanus get killed fighting for Rome than live shamefully, how she loves his scars. Other characters call her crazy, and with good reason—she is very bloody-minded, and has seriously messed up her son. Also, Papa Coriolanus is nowhere to be found (he’s simply not there, and it’s never explained), so we realize early that Volumnia is Coriolanus’s be-all-and-end-all, she is the heavy hand that’s guided and shaped him his whole life. Fiennes does an excellent job portraying their relationship—Volumnia’s voice while we watch Coriolanus struggling to get up: her voice literally in his head, spurring him back to the fight. Ugh. See, even in my explanation of the Virgilia/Volumnia thing it’s all “Virgilia who?”
Anyway, so Volumnia is domineering and talks a lot. Usually Virgilia gets shunted off to the side and ignored. Not so in Fiennes’s movie. Virgilia stays largely quiet—no one invented new lines for her or anything—but the camera follows her, lets us absorb her pitch-perfect reactions to the volatile people around her, and shows us her alienation in the light of Volumnia and Coriolanus’s relationship. There’s a great scene where Coriolanus has just come back from war and we see him sitting there, with his mother bandaging his wounds, when Virgilia walks in—more accurately, she opens the door, sees the two of them there, is stared at like an intruder, and turns right around. The camera attention on Virgilia also clues us into the depth of her love and investment in Coriolanus—so later, when she and Volumnia go a little ape-shit on the tribunes, it doesn’t come out of nowhere. The view on Virgilia, and similar attention to Menenius, and even the citizens gives us a fuller world—one that recognizes even the quieter or unnamed characters as people with full lives beyond the act and scene breaks of the original play. It is beautifully done.
The other thing I adored/was surprised by, was the execution of the relationship between Coriolanus and Aufidius. The two are extreme rivals, but they have to team up, and their relationship has to be more than just hate. They both idolize each other—hold each other up as the only worthy competition, but the language in the play also gets borderline romantic (there’s a point when Aufidius is talking about how he loves his wife, but how even when he was super excited to be first married, it still didn’t compare to seeing Coriolanus. And then they have an intense bro-hug.) So there are a lot of fine lines to deal with—but the movie does a great job of dealing with them. Gerry (yeah, I’m calling Gerard Butler “Gerry.” You know what? Feels good. I’m sticking with it) particularly does an excellent job playing an Aufidius who is physically threatening, emotionally conflicted about his relationship with Coriolanus, and torn about his role as a leader. His accent makes certain words tough to decipher, but only rarely. Chew on those consonants a little more, Gerry! You can do it.
Like I said before, I love this movie. Here’s the thing about love though—it makes you giddy, it … can alter your judgement, and if it’s real, it’s unconditional. Bottomline: My reactions to this movie are not necessarily typical, logical, or appropriate. I know the picture I’ve painted so far has been pretty rosy, but there are sections where the movie wallows in walk sequences of all things. I mean, for god’s sake there are times when I sat in the theatre thinking: “Dear god! Why are we watching him walk in real time?!” I may have also needed to pee at that point. But still. The movie is a product of mere mortals—so it’s not perfect, it’s probably not as accessible as it could be—but it’s also a product of deep love and (to put it mildly) mild obsession. Sometimes works of obsession aren’t… you know, very good. The artist can get too wrapped up in the thing and not be able to step back and see it clearly—but I think the care and passion that went into the movie shines through and actually makes it more balanced and awesome. He spent time on Virgilia!
It’s a great movie—certainly my favorite recent release by a lot. You should go see it. Do it now.