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Coriolanus

Coriolanus

You could be forgiven for thinking that this is a flick about soccer hooligans.
Come on you Reds!

dir: Ralph Fiennes

Speaking of Shakespeare, as I was in that recent review for Anonymous: damn, he really wrote, whoever it was, a lot of plays, thirty-eight in fact. I mean, that’s prolific. And, as with any prolific authors, they’ve got stuff no-one wants to know about, Kenneth Brannagh doesn’t want to direct, and Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t want to star in.

So it’s left up to Ralph Fiennes, still smarting from his goofy brother Joseph Fiennes getting to play the Bard in Shakespeare in Love, to direct and star in Coriolanus.

They used to think it was based on someone who really existed, and something that really happened, but it probably didn’t. That doesn’t stop a Fiennes, though, does it? And it hardly matters for the purposes of whether we’re entertained or not.

It’s set in somewhat ‘modern’ times, though the empire depicted is the Roman one, so all the references are old timey. I’ve also heard, though it’s not obvious from watching it, Fiennes’ intention was to make it look like the Balkans in the 90s, when European unity (and contemporary genocide) was at its finest.

The Coriolanus of the title is the main character, a Roman general who, until recently, was known only as Caius Marcius. He is really good at soldiery and ordering troops around. He's even better at killing the enemy. When Rome's enemies rear their ugly but still compelling heads, Caius will be there to crush them, and crush them good.

This isn't enough for some people, though. The common people of Rome, the plebians, they are not that enamoured of this chap, who some find haughty and too proud. In fact, they downright hate him for not handing out grain, like they want, just because they've got nothing to eat.

Goddamn starving freeloaders. Don't they know that conservative economic policies haven't been invented yet to justify their starvation by claiming that the free market deems them not worthy of living, and that the grain will better serve the wealthy if it stays locked up and eventually rots in granaries? Selfish, selfish people. They're so selfish that they agitate, threaten, protest and demonstrate against this prince amongst men, this lion amongst meerkats. Against all counsel, he goes out to tell them just what he thinks of them.

And remember this; not just throughout the course of the rest of the review, or film, but for all eternity: he tells them "Who deserves greatness / Deserves your hate" and states, quite plainly, and with great passion, that they are scum, and he does not feel the lack of their affections. On the contrary.

Haters are gonna hate, is ultimately what he's saying, like an R&B singer who refuses to take responsibility for his own actions, blaming the disapproval of others on envy, and not his own horrible actions. Haters gonna hate indeed.

Can you imagine, if you haven't seen the flick, and, let's face it, you probably never will, how much Ralph Fiennes, Voldemort himself, overacts in this scene, and in the rest of the flick? He's gloriously, aggressively over the top when he gets going. There's a scene much further on, which I'll get to later, where so much flecked spittle shoots from his screaming mouth that I wondered whether the crew and the cast had to wear ponchos just to get through the goddamn scene.

And can you imagine if he had to do it a bunch of times, just to get it right? This is no timid telling of the tale, though one should not go into it expecting some kind of thrilling experience. It's a Shakespeare play, after all.

In the next thrilling sequence (yes, I am taking the piss), Caius Marcius leads the best and brightest of Rome's mighty legions to crush the Volscii, a rival tribe that wanted to make some noise when the Tarquin kings were expelled from Rome. They are lead by a stern man, being Aufidius (Gerard Butler), and he, looking vaguely like someone who would kill a bunch of Persians and kick an ambassador down a well whilst screaming "THUS UZ SHPARTA!!!!", loves war. Lives for it, loves it. And he, in battle with Caius Marcius, gets to fall in love all over again.

In case I haven’t been clear, it’s not just modern dress for this setting. The soldiers fight in battle fatigues with M5 carbines and the like, not with swords and elephants. The raid Caius Marcius leads on the Volscian city of Corioli looks like the Battle for Fallujah, and is as brutal as you could imagine something based on Shakespeare not called Titus could be.

Caius and Aufidius get into it personally, going toe-to-toe with knives, because they really admire each other so much that they want to kill each other with their hands, which is a sure sign of love. The result is not definitive, but Caius and the Roman forces clearly crush the locals, and Caius is given the surname of Coriolanus by popular acclaim, to honour his great victory against these rebel sheep herders and presumed goat fuckers.

This bloodstained warrior, this juggernaut of a general, returns to Rome a goddamn hero, striding around like the colossus he truly is. His mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) positively glows with martial joy. To say that she is ecstatic about her son’s victory, and his accumulation of additional scars, would be an uncomfortable understatement. She is, I guess, one of the creepiest mother figures arising from the Bard's plays, which puts her in exalted company, because he imagined a shitload of creepy mother figures.

She explains to Coriolanus's wife (Jessica Chastain, who was indeed in every flick made in 2011) how much she loves the fact that Caius is a warmongering legend on the battlefield, striding around covered in gore and wounds, because they bring her an honour no other pursuit or activity could bring. And that she'd prefer to have nine sons who died honourably in battle than eight who did and one who preferred sitting around doing decoupage.

Bloodthirsty much? I guess she redeems herself later on, but there's definitely something creepy going on there. Upon his return, Coriolanus is picked to be the next consul, or imperial dictator for the next year, and he somewhat begrudgingly accepts his due. But he has a problem. A big problem.

You see, the problem is that when you're totally awesome, people envy you. According to Coriolanus’s every action, and the works of Ayn Rand, the common people despise you for your awesomeness when you’re one of the Exceptional People who’s better than anyone else. Your qualities and achievements remind them of how pathetic and meaningless their own lives are, and all the qualities they themselves lack.

None of this sits well with dear, dour Coriolanus, who keeps being asked to pander to the masses, to thrill them, to earn their love.

No, no, thrice no, he won’t do it, and thus do the people of Rome engrave their names on his shit list. The speech Fiennes gives after the people of Rome try to tear him down is hard to watch, but also bracing, because you’ve rarely seen that much hatred expressed so explosively outside of, I guess, stupid comments made on the internet over relatively minor disagreements.

There comes a trembling upon Rome, all coming because they rejected the man who was to be their leader. And some people do not take rejection well. At all well. Some of them, in fact, decide that declining to meet for coffee justifies burning your house down and salting the earth afterwards.

Coriolanus is that man, because he really puts the ‘anus’ in Coriolanus. This brutal fucker, despised by the common man, adored by soldiers, forges an alliance with an old enemy, someone with every reason to hate him, who does hate him, but who admires him more. And they both have something in common: oh boy do they hate Rome.

The last part of the story builds to an anti-climax so profound, so important to why the story is even a story, that it can be deceptively, um, disappointing. But I am assured that it's the reason why the story is even remembered at all, or why it was remembered and related by Shakespeare to the Elizabethan masses.

At no stage is Coriolanus a sympathetic figure, but he is a fearsome, admirable one, at least to me. I really did want to see him crush Rome, I really did, and I'm not sure why. In truth his contempt for the rabble, for the common folk, is Nietschean in its disdain, and fascist in its implications, but the film/story's crux rests on the fact that a person who's good at a thing shouldn't have to pander and pacify idiots who envy him enough to want to destroy him. So what if he's proud, he has every right to be (within their narrow context). What have they done for us lately, anyway? And it's not the masses that are the problem, it's two envious tribunes (James Nesbitt and some other guy) who stir them up for their own ends, knowing that

Look, Shakespeare is a hard sell, despite its prevalence in almost every art form. The language is dense and it really requires intense concentration just to know what they're talking about. Sometimes it just obscures all care or meaning, but at other times, the sheer lyrical beauty shines through. My favourite example of this is where some news journalists are sitting around arguing about contemporary events, employing the Bard's English, and it sounded great. It made me wish every news program delivered the news in structured verse.

It'd beat what we've currently got. The acting is, as you'd expect, over the top but okay. Fiennes overdoes it, but I guess he felt he had to. Brian Cox, who I haven't mentioned thus far, is great as a diplomat who's trying to keep everyone happy and unkilled, who really does his darndest to help out Coriolanus, Coriolanus's family and the people of Rome, but the three being happy is a mutually exclusive proposition.

I enjoyed it, somewhat, but would recommend it to anyone only with the most tentative of enthusiasms. Put it this way, unlike Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet and all the other popular ones, you're very unlikely to ever see another version of it, which means Fiennes's take will be the definitive one on this awesome play.

Have at it, y'all!

6 times Coriolanus is covered in blood so much you'd think this was the prehistoric prequel to Carrie out of 10

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“O, a kiss, long as my exile, sweet as my revenge!” – I think you’re doing it wrong, if that’s the case - Coriolanus

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