Like an avatar of war.

Coriolanus is a Shakespeare adaptation that does the line-for-line thing. If you’ve seen some of Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptations, or even Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet and they weren’t for you on account of the dialogue, you’re not probably going to like this either. I used to be one of the guys who thought “fucking overrated windbag” when I had to read Shakespeare in high school. In university, I sort of reformed my opinion (less of a pompous little ass these days) via having to read 20 out of the 36 or so plays for a summer course. Coriolanus was not one of the plays I read, but I wish I had, and am surprised it’s taken this long for there to be a film adaptation as it is full of interesting shit, including the obligatory great dialogue, and somehow, through Fiennes’ lens, flirts with the topical.

Directed by Ralph Fiennes and basically a war film, Coriolanus has an updated coat of paint that feels appropriate if scatter-shot. In the film, London stands in for Rome and the Serbian shooting locations as the rough barbarian lands held by the Volsces. Though the double-decker buses tell us that London=Rome, more or less, the city itself is multicultural and there are a pile of characters with different accents and ethnicities. I’m not sure if that’s just colorblind casting or a deliberate choice to reflect the cosmopolitan nature of Ancient Rome, but it is certainly an interesting element given that the dissidents in the film are both non-Caucasian with accents other than British. The possibility that Fiennes is trying to comment on the situation of immigration or the UK’s relationship with the rest of Europe, especially Eastern Europe, is very much present though kept obscure enough for one to be left guessing at intention all through the film. I’m not sure if this is a flaw or serves to simply present us with the obviousness of Shakespeare’s perennial relevance. Whatever the case, this review will at least partially act as a catalog of these sorts of possibly-topical bits.

There are loose threads of commentary everywhere in this film.

When we first meet Caius Martius Coriolanus (Fiennes), he is simply a general of Rome and one tasked with keeping the hungry citizens at bay during a bread riot. He shows his contempt for the plebs openly and we’re confronted with a guy who seems like the personification of everything we know about fascist militarism brought to bear against the citizens of the very population they’re meant to serve. Fiennes displays a ferocity that sews instant dislike, daring the audience to stay with this character in spite of how despicable he seems. While Rome suffers, the barbarian Volsces begin to encroach on the borders and Martius takes his men to Corioles (from which he gets his third name) to fight them.

The Roman troops look like American urban fireteams, decked out in digital urban camo and carrying firearms we’d more quickly associate with the USA than with the Brits who tend to use bullpup assault rifles from the SA80 family. On the other side, the Volsces look like the type of guerrilla troops we’re used to seeing depicted as terrorists or revolutionaries. From AK-47’s to irregular facial hair and tattoos and all the way down to green coveralls, the Volsces are a visual representation of the “enemy” we have collectively known for decades. Led by Aufidius (Gerard Butler) a man who has tangled with Martius before and who seems like a Scottish Che Guevara. Butler is brilliant here, showing off an ease and comfort with the Shakespeare that I wouldn’t have expected. He’s outmatched by Fiennes, of course, but only slightly. I’d say the biggest surprise of the film was just how good Butler was.

The uniform of Rome, so very similar to that of American and coalition soldiers. Note the appearance of the flag on Fiennes’ right arm… looks like the Canadian flag eh? Just another one of those odd little details that may or may not be coincidental.

So is the film critical of American foreign policy? Of its allies by extension? My bet is on the latter. There’s something of a comparison being made here, one which we’ve heard before, but feels much more dynamic and immediate given the kineticism of this particular film.

Anyways. Martius beats Aufidius after a brutal knife duel, the latter retreating and forced to leave his dead family behind (did Martius kill them?). Back in Rome, we see that the city has prepared to welcome him as a hero and name him Coriolanus for his victory in Corioles. This is where things become a bit confusing, though. It seems the citizens of Rome wish to share in his victory and demand to see his new scars, something of a badge of honor, and hear about his exploits. Coriolanus, however, shows an admirable streak of humility (for all that he’s constantly accused of pridefulness) and refuses to be present while he is praised byMenenius (Brian Cox) his sole ally among the powers of Rome, almost all of whom are either hostile or nervous about him. Also present are his wife (Jessica Chastain, sadly in a limited role) and his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave, who steals the movie). There’s a long stretch of politicking here, much of which is dependent on a basic working knowledge of what we know of (or dramatize of) Roman society.

Volumnia is dressed up in military costume to further the mentorship connection with her son, who she has driven and inspired and corralled where necessary.

Coriolanus’ reticence gets him into trouble with the tribunes and other muckety-mucks which leads to some ugly confrontations they use against him. We know he kind of hates on the common people, but the tribunes who go after him are guilty of manipulating the citizens against Coriolanus for their own power. As consul, the guy has a lot of power and is a threat to the power enjoyed by other civil servants. The people are the losers in this struggle, however, as they are exploited and insulted by every side whether they know it or not. Though the original play was probably meant to be highly individualistic and perhaps libertarian in its portrayal of Coriolanus, the film seems much more critical of the powerful.

Due to his raging about having to capitulate to the plebs, Coriolanus winds up banished at which point he seeks out Aufidius and joins ranks with him and the Volsces. This part of the film moves fast, showing a bit of strain in the adaptation by having the long stretch of the familiar situation mid-film turn on its head. Suddenly, the Volsces are split in their loyalties between Coriolanus and Aufidius, Aufidius is stoked that Coriolanus is on his team, and Rome is basically “oh shit, we done fucked up”. It’s a whirlwind, basically, and it’s headed straight for all the people Coriolanus perceives to have slighted him. Rome doesn’t want him? Then Rome doesn’t get to be at all. It’s the equivalent of a tantrum.

Little details like Coriolanus’ contingent shaving their heads in reflection of him are great touches.

So given that Coriolanus is throwing a tantrum, it’s up to his mumsy to come and sort him out. On the eve of the Volsces final assault on Rome, it is Volumnia who goes (along with the rest of his family) to try and convince him to calm the fuck down. What follows is one of the great performances of Shakespeare that I have seen. Vanessa Redgrave is an excellent actress and probably breathes Shakespeare but that doesn’t take away from the excellence of her impassioned appeal to her monster for a son. Fiennes shows a talent for restraint and generosity toward other actors all throughout the movie (this is not a vanity piece, whatever the marketing suggested) and this approach is slammed home in this scene.

Not that Fiennes is any slouch. He’s one of the most versatile actors out there and Coriolanus may be his finest villain, the kind of man that we see through the prism of our times as demonstrably monstrous but undeniably human and therefore potentially redeemable. One of Shakespeare’s greatest legacies is the tradition of compelling villains who often occupied the role of protagonist in spite of their wicked acts and tragic ends.

The cold fuck veneer is broken only by a mother’s admonishment. The most important relationship in the film culminates beautifully.

As I said above, it’s possible that Fiennes meant to comment on the realities of the Middle Eastern wars that have occupied the attentions of the Western world for over a decade now. I feel like his depiction of Coriolanus, villainous and spiteful though he might be, is also a depiction of a man made by his circumstances. As they say in the film, Coriolanus is as Rome has made him, using him to fight its wars and yet finding him unfit for peace. That’s an experience I daresay can and should be taken to reflect the relationship between soldier and citizen in our modern wars, from Vietnam to the occupation of Iraq. Fiennes no doubt has great sympathy for soldiers and men of war who find themselves victims of the caprice of the very people they serve. Equally doubtless is that Coriolanus was not a victim of anything more so than his own pride, which was simply too great to be balanced by his humble streak.

Coriolanus is a dense work and a messy one. It’s never sloppy, always precise, and thus a deliberate mess meant as a mirror for those troublesome aspects of modern society that are as true now as they were 400 years ago, much less 2000 years ago.