I’ve finally now seen the recent film production of Coriolanus, starring and directed by Ralph Fiennes, and it is as I feared, a failure. It’s one of these updating adaptations of a Shakespeare play—in this case the politics and warfare of the early Roman city-state gets refitted with all the latest guns and gizmos. One blurb touts it as “Shakespeare’s Rambo!” The setting becomes a war-torn situation evocative of 1990s-Yugoslavia, yet with distinct states—Fiennes and the screenwriter John Logan retain the all the original names, including that of the rival city-state to Rome, Antium, capital of the Volscians. They also, albeit with much cutting, retain the original text.
The first major problem is that Ralph Fiennes is poorly cast as Coriolanus. There are a number of ways in which he doesn’t fit the part, but the most obvious is that he plays it far too understated-ly to capture the hero’s grandeur, both in manner and language.
Understatement can be an effective way to translate stage drama to film, and this film is fairly ingenious at finding plausible ways for lines originally addressed to larger groups to instead be said in passing to only one or two characters. But this underlines one of the more subtle problems with the adaptation. While life in Shakespeare’s early Rome is very public, so that private scenes are rare, Fiennes’s Rome is more a place of separations and security fences. It makes one feel confined: heavy use of shaky-cam close-ups; scenes in sealed luxury cars; the crowds shoved-together and repetitively composed from the same cast of thirty-or-so extras; a firm line (absent in the text) drawn between the interiors of government buildings and the outdoor forums; and the battles urban-warfare ones with troops darting in-and-out of dim rooms, hallways, and alleys.
But back to Fiennes’ playing of Coriolanus: while he avoids the danger of playing him as acidic and generally disgusted, what he gives us in typical scenes is a very muted and bland Coriolanus, whose actions become puzzling since his intonations and expressions so little prepare us for them; worse, in some scenes calling for declamation, such as his famous “I banish you!” speech, Fiennes plays him as practically a madman, veins bursting, spittle spraying, etc. He presents the wrath of Coriolanus as a psychotic fit.
As for the modernizing elements of the adaptation, the problems are as follows:
1) Modern Warfare: guns, tanks, etc. This is the problem I expected. A drama in which the martial hero matters politically because he is his people’s most potent weapon, and thus a key means of defending their very survival, must become less convincing given a modern combat situation: a single shot or IED can eliminate him. What I didn’t anticipate is the way the loss of the open-aired battlefield changes war’s heroic, valor-displaying feel. The text compels Fiennes and Logan to invent, in the midst of the urban gun-play, an occasion for a hand-to-hand knife duel between Tullus Aufidius and Coriolanus, but the fact that it occurs inside a building removes the opportunity for the army, i.e., Rome-in-arms, to witness it.
2) Modern Politics. In my original post I worried more than I needed about military uniforms giving the patricians a fascistic feel—that is there to some degree, but the film’s political landscape turns out to be too confused for the audience to really think of fascism. The plot make us see we’re supposed to have some respect for Coriolanus, but when he says political things, we’re given no aide in judging what they might signify for this “Rome.” He just seems a moody, uptight, combat-loving guy.
3) Television News. Initially this seems clever. For example, instead of having several plebians argue about the strengths and weaknesses of Coriolanus’ character, these lines are given to a news-analysis panel. Minor inconveniences to certain scenes, such as the ones where Roman or Volscian leaders try to learn whether the enemy is on the march, result from the TV news presence, but the bigger problem is that the public life of Rome is shunted indoors—no one needs to hear from their fellow citizens who have just run from the Senate or the other side of the city to learn what’s happening—it’s all being mediated by the media. But in the play, that mediation of the news most of all belongs to the Senators and tribunes themselves. That allows us to see how the Senators have in their arsenal the substantial power of knowing more about the state’s business, how the tribunes utilize crowd dynamics, and how both sides rely on rhetoric and rumor. So on whose side is this media in Fiennes’ adaptation? Or is it really neutral? It’s never made clear. And besides our uncertainty about that, the result of the TV news presence is that it looks as if any of the plebians could become as well-informed as any patrician or tribune.
4) The plebians become “protesters.” A very serious mistake. In the play, the plebians are obviously poor and uneducated. Their ignorance, unkemptness, and inconstancy often become occasion for mockery. Some of them are thoughtful on their own, but the ease with which they become manipulated by the tribunes, or otherwise become viciously or stupidly mob-like is one of the most powerful aspects of the drama. All that is lost here. No jokes at the plebians’ expense make it past the editing. And they look admirable: they are a group of multi-ethnic dissidents, led not by boorish types, but by a fiery leftist woman and her scholarly-looking counterpart. You often see them wearing scarves, or other intellectual-favored if slightly grungy fashions, and they use cell-phones to film the security forces. They also look soft, with no hint of poverty’s hardening. When they act mob-like, we see no overall ferocity, nor even any particular members with rumble-lust in their eyes. (Beyond failing to capture Shakespeare, this likewise fails to portray the reality of many “protest gatherings” these days attracting hoody and unhinged members, as in the London riots of last summer.) Nor are they shaking their fists and railing at their fellow citizens the patricians in the eye-to-eye manner of the play, but at phalanxes of body-armored riot-police hidden behind plastic shields and black-visored helmets.
When many of the plebians briefly support Coriolanus for consul, we can discern no reason for why they would—we have not seen that they also have to fight on the battlefield. By this and other features, Fiennes has allowed the social feel of the ancient polis to be entirely obscured. And by declining to really give the audience reason to worry about the plebians’ judgment, the play’s critique of the democratic imperative, or more precisely its bringing out the tragic dimension of republican politics, is also lost.
And if you lose that, along with the sense of Coriolanus’ innate nobility, you’ve lost all reason for the play, haven’t you? But Fiennes and Logan don’t understand what’s fundamental to this drama.
I’m guessing that’s because they have not been liberally educated in the real sense, the sense that opens one to classical views. They must have been reading the sorts of agenda-laden and ultimately text-neglecting analyses coming out of contemporary English departments, when they should have been reading the interpretations of Shakespeare coming from politics-n’-literature folks, folks often Strauss-influenced and lurking in Political Science departments. Allan Bloom’s five lively little pages on here on Coriolanus would have taught them far more than the hundreds of pages of what I suspect they slogged through.
So all in all, a confused muddle of a movie. And unlike with the most well-known of the aggressively-updating film adaptations of Shakespeare, Romeo + Juliet, none of the updating features cause us to think with any profit about our own society—there is no compensation for the violence they do the Bard’s original poetic world.
Don’t waste your time.
P.S. Here’s a web review that disagrees with me, here’s another that agrees. Neither of these display much knowledge of Shakespeare, though, and I’d be happy if knowing readers can supply links to better reviews.