Shakespeare's 'Coriolanus' Made Contemporary
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
First-time director Ralph Fiennes brings one of Shakespeare's lesser-known tragic heroes to ferocious life in "Coriolanus," played in modern dress but voiced in the bard's eloquently corrosive language. Fiennes acted this anti-social über-soldier, based on a legendary Roman general, on the London stage in 2000 and came to believe that Coriolanus' rise and fall might be better expressed on-screen: "I just felt it was a play about now." And so it is, in spades.
Fiennes' reading underscores the soul-killing compromises demanded of democratic leaders, especially during times of economic turmoil; the power of the media to yo-yo public opinion; and the eternal tension between exceptional citizen and democracy's common men.
Deftly orchestrating bloody action sequences ("Hurt Locker" cinematographer Barry Ackroyd is on board), the dangerous dynamics of fickle crowds and scenes of lacerating intimacy, Fiennes drives "Coriolanus" with a strong directorial hand, his style as single-minded -- and arguably, arrogant -- as that of the character. The play's been smartly streamlined by John Logan, and Fiennes' cast speaks Shakespeare's dialogue so naturally, the 17th-century poetry never jars with the "now" in which it's spoken.
Like Jeremy Renner's "Hurt Locker" character, Caius Martius is a war lover who can't or won't give up the heightened sense of self and clarity of action achieved in battle. In peacetime, Coriolanus is an unapologetic elitist, antithesis of political panderer. Ayn Rand would have loved this magnificent monster, incapable of bending or blurring who he is to suit the desires or expectations of others.
Fighting corner to corner, house to house through the Volscian city of Corioli, Caius Martius might be Death incarnate, shaved head and contorted face streaked with blood and dirt, blue eyes lasering through the dust of explosions: "Make of me your sword," he screams at his cowering troop. It's his only form and function.
Returning to Rome as the conquering hero Coriolanus, Fiennes sharpens his features into such purity they might be sculpted from stone -- or steel. Forced to mingle with a gaggle of plebeians, to beg their approval of his becoming consul, that face freezes in distaste and contempt; it so gripes him to stoop to conquer. Addressing the crowd, his tones are low and strained, until he can no longer hold fire. Then, terrifyingly, Fiennes' chiseled features distort in demonic outrage; bullet head thrust forward, aiming abuse at the body politic, he is beautiful -- and inhuman -- to behold.
As his martial mother Volumnia, a square-shouldered Fury with every iota of unnecessary flesh flayed from her white-haired skull, Vanessa Redgrave is superb. First to welcome her son home, she mirrors and holds his fierce blue glare, until: "But lo thy wife," the downward fall of her voice suggesting Virgilia's sloppy seconds (Jessica Chastain, pale fire among conflagrations).
Mom dresses/caresses Martius' wounds in a lavatory, their intimacy so potent Virgilia must shut the door on it, as though she'd spied him in flagrante with a mistress. Volumnia's hot for Coriolanus' advancement; she can't see why the sword shouldn't become flexible enough to please Rome's citizenry -- though the Amazon who forged that sword should know better.
So should Menenius (Brian Cox), the veteran politico who tries and fails to shape Coriolanus to public life. Splendid in the complex role of glad-hander and genuine hero-worshipper, Cox is riveting; watch his face collapse into open wound after his "son"'s brutal kiss-off.
Coriolanus, his brief political popularity on the wane, must endure a TV show -- call it "Roman Idol" -- during which he's voted out of the city, banished as an enemy of the people. Spitting saliva and loathing, Fiennes definitively condemns his onetime fans: "I banish you!" Such a viscerally satisfying moment, that divorce of hero from herd, Coriolanus' final refusal to exhibit his scars -- and soul -- to curry popcult favor.
Bent on revenge, Coriolanus offers allegiance to Rome's longtime enemy, Volscian general Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), "the lion I am happy to hunt." These soul mates have already embraced once, during a nearly fatal knife fight back in Corioli; this time, the brothers-in-arms hold each other as loving allies. (There is a third embrace, even more loving and lethal.)
Scottish Butler burrs Shakespearean speech a bit, so that Fiennes' wonderfully crisp diction cuts across it. When Coriolanus deliberately insults Aufidius, calling him "Boy!" three times over, that razor-sharp delivery slices to the bone. There's something a little puffy about Aufidius' handsome face, in contrast to Coriolanus' death's-head countenance. That softness proves fertile soil for envy, aroused by the inconstancy of yet another crowd and its appetite for new idols -- the admiring Volscian soldiers are soon shaving their heads to look like Coriolanus.
But the Judas kiss comes from Volumnia, dispatched to beg for the life of Rome. In a painfully prolonged scene, this merciless Medea chips away at Coriolanus' adamantine rage, forcing him down to his knees, gelding him into killing compromise. Here and elsewhere, Fiennes directs theater on the grand scale, burning his characters down to expose the terrible beauty of the human soul.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.