With its opening montage of colliding images – a knife being drawn across a whetstone, television footage of massed crowds, milling soldiers in combat fatigues, politicians alighting from cars, with linking television intertitles and an underlying soundtrack of pulsating drums – Ralph Fiennes’s and John Logan’s take on Coriolanus immediately establishes its connections to contemporary events.

The images crowd and jostle each other, as Barry Ackroyd’s camerawork parades its handheld credentials, calling to mind his earlier work on The Hurt Locker (2008). One of the results of such an approach is that, while being swept up in these swirling and overlapping images (taking perhaps Shakespeare’s ‘two hours’ traffic of our stage’ a touch too literally), the viewer begins to long for a moment of stillness, hoping the narrative might settle.

Of course, Fiennes as director could argue that the playwright’s own account of the career of Caius Martius is constantly unsettling. Coriolanus is rightly seen as perhaps Shakespeare’s most problematic tragic figure, and the play is a disturbingly contradictory dissection of democracy that confuses the relationship between the governed and those who thrive on governing.

The major stumbling block for any actor tackling the central role is how to shape persuasively the character’s warrior nature, arrogance, and refusal to compromise, if an audience is to discern in him any vaguely sympathetic qualities. Fiennes goes out of his way to emphasise the former in his physical appearance: dragon tattoo on the back of his neck, shaven head, scars criss-crossing both his torso and his face. This is no noble Roman warrior whom we might secretly admire, but a figure who parades his tough-guy credentials. And yet  … and yet. One director seeking to establish the character’s identity in the early scenes suggested to his cast that: ‘Since the talk is all about his pride, we need to identify moments when he shows humility, following Stanislavski, who asked of the actor playing a miser that he should show him being generous.’ No diehard Stanislavskian or Method director this, but Brecht, whose radically anti-heroic Berliner Ensemble London production of the play in 1965 prompted English critics and directors to rethink their approach (shaped largely by Laurence Olivier’s heroic version) over the next two decades.

In some respects, Fiennes’s portrayal of the character in the first third of the film might be seen as following the line of Ekkehard Schall’s unforgettable performance, rather than the 1984 posing and posturing from Ian McKellen in his National Theatre version. Fiennes is relentlessly unyielding and in-your-face: but the logic of his interpretation really only emerges when we see Coriolanus engaging with the people’s tribunes (two smartly pitched performances from James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson) and with the people themselves.

It is one of the film’s many strengths that the great set pieces are rarely sold short (a shame to have found no place for Menenius’s great parable of the body’s members, but logical in terms of the script’s choices). In particular, the political wheeling and dealing between, on the one hand, Coriolanus and Brian Cox’s superbly calculated (and calculating) Menenius, and, on the other, the people, led on by their two tribunes, is brilliantly realised.

Latching on to the phrase (in Shakespeare) ‘It shall be so’ that accompanies the proposal to banish Coriolanus, the film turns this moment into something that resembles a political rally getting out of hand, or the baying response of a sporting crowd to some piece of minor mayhem from a loathed opponent. The chant builds, soars, and leads directly into Coriolanus’s swingeing ‘You common cry of curs’ response, which, on Fiennes’s raging lips, crackles with venom and contempt. I cannot recall a more riveting and dramatic reading of this scene, to which all leads, and from which the subsequent action derives.

Coriolanus’s journey into exile, through a war-shattered landscape, peopled by dogs and children, and cluttered with rubbish (the film was shot mostly on location in Belgrade and Montenegro), is cleverly managed, with the problem posed by the stage direction ‘Coriolanus in mean apparel, disguised and muffled’ solved by having Fiennes appear bearded, unkempt, and with straggling hair. Preparing to march on Rome, he reverts to the skinhead image from the start of the play, so that the extended exchanges between Vanessa Redgrave’s flinty and powerful Volumnia and her martial son still hint that the scales are not entirely tilted in her favour.

While the Independent’s touting of the film as ‘likely to appeal to action fans and Shakespeare lovers in equal measure’ is not quite the recommendation it means to be, this version of Shakespeare’s most physically alert play offers a quintet of standout performances, and a consistency of concept that leads one to hope that this might not be an isolated example of Fiennes pugnaciously tackling the Bard and winning comfortably on points. Troilus and Cressida, anyone?

Coriolanus (MA), written by William Shakespeare, screenplay by John Logan. 122 minutes. Released in Australia on 8 March.
Published in April 2012, no. 340
Michael Morley

Michael Morley

Michael Morley is Emeritus Professor of Drama at Flinders University. He has written theatre and music reviews and articles for a variety of publications, including Theatre Australia, the National Times, The Australian, the Australian Financial Review, Opera News (New York), the Kurt Weill Newsletter, the Sondheim Review, the Adelaide Review, and Australian Book Review. He has also contributed translations for the English edition of the collected poems of Alfred Brendel.

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