A personal project for Fiennes, who plays the lead character, Coriolanus is an attempt to make a rarely performed Shakespeare play more widely known. It’s one that I’ve not seen before and never completed reading – it’s a notoriously difficult text, and one that was apparently pruned extensively for this cinematic version, although all the remaining text is original Will. I was certainly able to follow the plot, in this version; though some of the dialogue was occasionally a little bewildering, the sense of what was being said always came through.
Like McKellen’s Richard III, this is a modern setting, with a generic-Balkans backdrop substituting for that film’s mash-up-1930’s Fascism. This has a few hiccups here and there, as the early-modern origins of the play butt up against the very modern warfare portrayed but it mostly works and has the benefit of making that warfare comprehensibly brutal, visceral and real.
We first see Fiennes’ Martius confronting a Roman crowd. He represents the forces of an aristocratic elite, careless of the suffering of the ordinary people but very aware of the threat posed to their city-state by rivals, especially the Volscians. After a successful war against the Volscians, led by Aufidius (Gerard Butler), taking the nearby city of Corioli, Martius returns home and is given the honorific “Coriolanus”. For successful Roman generals, a political career was expected, both as reward for prior service and as a further duty to the state, and this translates well to the modernised setting. The portrayal of the Tribunes, representatives of the common people, as utterly malevolent and devious villains, while perfectly in tune with Shakespeare’s writing, as far as I can see, looks a little like elitist and extreme right-wing propoganda but this is balanced as Fiennes’ film balances their treachery very well with Martius’ arrogance and callousness.
This callousness, we see, is partly down to his nature and also to his upbringing. His mother (an amazing turn from Vanessa Redgrave – again) inculcates in him an overwhelming sense of personal honour and the primacy of martial valour, with seemingly little or no value placed on domestic virtues.
This arrogant dismissal of the suffering of ordinary people and his extreme reluctance to pretend otherwise ill-prepares him for a life in politics and Martius finds himself out-manouvred to the point where he is stripped of his civic honours and is exiled (this is one of the points that doesn’t exactly translate to a modern setting). Leaving his city alone and vulnerable, Martius does the unthinkable and goes over to the enemy. Enlisting with Aufidius, he quickly becomes the Volscians’ hero as he leads Aufidius’ troops towards Rome.
I’m not sure this is quite so successful an adaptation as Richard III, which might be unfair since that is usually regarded as a better play in the first place, but it is pretty satisfying and I’ll feel more confident approaching the full text or performance in future.
Now for Timon of Athens…