I do so enjoy when people re-envision the Bard. It’s part of the testament to the greatness of his plays — which themselves are usually repackaged versions of popular stories — that you can take the universal themes and stage them during different political periods, in high schools or nursing homes, or even on other planets. During college, I was in a production of Twelfth Night set during the 1920’s, and I also wrote up a treatment of Macbeth as a mafia movie. And while the comedies and tragedies tend to lend themselves readily to reinterpretation, the histories can be difficult terrain. Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s more complicated plays, praised by scholars and literati while bemoaned by people seeking course credit. It’s most famous for being a punchline; even Cole Porter couldn’t help but crack wise about it’s bawdy posterior potential. Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut is in the vein of Ian McKellen’s superb Richard III. It’s in full verse, set in modern day Rome, with exposition being meted out via news broadcasts on televisions, and with all the warfare being staged Call of Duty: Jacobean Warfare-style — all combat knives and assault rifles. Coriolanus is hard R Shakespeare — no sex and nudity or swearing; it earns everything through the violence. Fiennes can’t quite electrify the verse and so the film does tend to lag, but his visuals are outstanding and he’s able to mine the material for its modern day parallels with great success.
While it will draw comparisons to the alternate fascist England of McKellen’s Richard III, the interesting part is that Fiennes’ modern day Rome is democratic. Fiennes’ production, from a script written by John Logan — who pretty much wrote every film this year (Rango, Hugo) — thematically reflects the Occupy Wall Street movement. The people in the street are starving and rebelling because they want food, and so they riot. The military, lead by Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes), swarm out in storm trooper gear and begin to beat the shit out of the starving masses, while the patricians try to quell the rebellion with speeches. They are represented by a snake oil smooth politician called Menenius (Brian Cox). The country is at war, and so they need all the food for the soldiers. Because if you don’t support the troops, you are clearly not a patriot. And of course, they need the food for the patricians. Starving and living on scraps is the
American Roman way. Meanwhile, smooth talking Martius essentially tells them to fuck off for the scum that they are. Then he pepper sprays them because it’s food. Just kidding.
Martius is a warrior, a hardened soldier who will run into battle at the frontline, smashing everything that comes before him. He’s currently battling against an invading Volscian force led by Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), a soldier he’s locked into mortal combat with time and time again. The Siege of Corioles is what stuff dreams were made of. If your dreams consist entirely of having played 48 consecutive hours of online Xbox play. The Roman army at first can’t break the gates, and a repelled. So Martius goes all Liam-Neeson-Give-Me-Back-My-Daughter onslaught on them, single handedly butchering an entire platoon. He returns to his battalion, his face bathed in the blood of his enemies. Any hardy locker-room style, Bill Pullman Independence Day speech is going to be effective when you stain your face with chunks of those you’ve vanquished. It’s actually one of the steps of Six Sigma.
When they infiltrate the rebels, there’s a standoff, where Aufidius faces down Martius. They duke it with combat knives, slashing each other to ribbons, and the fight only ends with Aufidius being dragged away by his men. Martius returns home a conquering hero, and the Senate gives him the dubious distinctive title of
Gaylord Fokker Shitticus Maximus Hooty McBoob Coriolanus. His wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) has been pining for his return, and his bloodthirsty badass of a mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) along with Menenius want him to run for consul. Rather than seeing the Senators decked out in togas waxing versace on marble steps, we see them in thousand dollar suits wheeling and dealing in a smoky barroom over scotches. It’s just as effective. Scheming politicians don’t want no Anus in their in the bidness so they decide to incite a riot among the people. Which isn’t hard because The Anus formerly known as Martius is a dick who doesn’t like accolades and who just pretty much spent the beginning of the movie spitting on the dirty trust fund Bonnaroo-ed rebels. And thus The Anus gets booted from Rome. So he goes to Aufidius and offers to be killed because that’ll teach those fuckers. Aufidius fistbumps The Anus and suggests they all go and sack Rome together. So they do.
Fiennes and Logan manage to streamline the play nicely to make way for the straight-up warfare and “Band of Brothers” noble warrior camaraderie. The acting is visceral and exciting. Butler and his bravado and brogue nicely compliment Fiennes complete lack of anything but seething rage and sobriety. If this is how he played Voldemort, Harry Potter wouldn’t have lasted long enough to waggle his peen for all the pretty horses. Brian Cox has been getting a lot more juicy roles, and he deserves them. Virgilia is like a ritually lobotomized Penelope, her entire purpose is to pine and look pretty. And so she does. Volumnia, on the other hand, is the fist. You can see why her son is such a fucking badass. Her mother’s milk is made of TNT, and Redgrave has been a Shakespearean dynamo this year. Even when she begs it’s a threat.
Coriolanus will be an effective way to get kids to eat their vegetables. If you showed the Siege of Corioles in a high school English class, they’d all be packing Nortons in a month. It’s an exceptional adaptation and shows the versatility of Willie S. One of the few things Anonymous did right was portray the stagecraft and spectacle of the plays. There should be explosions and chaos and bloodshed; it’s right there on the page. As usual, the complex language of the verse coupled with the fact that Coriolanus is a fucking unsympathetic and unrelenting sonofabitch (even fucking Robocop had more feeling towards his wife and son) makes it a bit of an ordeal. They squeeze Menenius for as much humor as they can wrench free, but mostly Coriolanus is a dreary morose play about betrayal and butchery and woe. Still, if you treasure the works like I do, Coriolanus is definitely worth a gander.