Although based on a dark, grim and bloodthirsty Shakespearean tragedy, I was very impressed by this film which I went to see with some trepidation.
Well-paced and not excessively violent (compared to what it could have been) the acting is excellent, the words spoken with such expression and clarity that the sense comes through very strongly, even to someone like me unfamiliar with the text. It does not bother me that some passages and plot details may have been omitted in the interests of making the plot easier to digest. Likewise, a dialogue which sounds at time surprisingly modern compensates for the lack of any memorable "To be or not to be"-style soliloquies which may not come across well in a film.
The modern setting is not irritating and gratuitous as is too often the case, but also enabled me to see the film's relevance to our divided and violent world. Rome is represented as a typical concrete western city, ruled by the cynical "haves" ("patricians") while the mass of "have-nots" are beginning to riot over lack of bread, although they are easily swayed by cunning politicians.
Rome is under threat from a Balkan-type community called the Volscians, against whom the professional soldier Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes) gains a celebrated victory over the city of Corioles, thus being rewarded with the surname "Coriolanus". This leads naturally to his appointment as a consul, but "honest to a fault", he refuses to conceal his contempt for the people. His political enemies play on this to get him banished, which of course turns him from a loyal supporter of Rome to a man bent on revenge.
On a personal level, this is an interesting psychological study of pride, fanaticism and jealousy. The complex relationship between Coriolanus and his mother Volumnia, played brilliantly by Vanessa Redgrave, shows how a strong man may be controlled as a tool of his physically weaker but mentally stronger mother's ambition.
If I had studied this play at school, I think I might have hated it - although a good teacher enabled me to appreciate the drama of Julius Caesar. Hopefully, this intelligent modern rendition may enable many students - and general viewers as well - to understand and value this very interesting play.
Fell asleep the first time round. The problem is the dialogue, rich with innuendo, cross referencing, psychological insights whilst also carrying the plot, I became stuck trying to digest one line, grappling with the meaning and then another is thrown, then by the time that one gets unpicked, the result is I am lost within the plot.
There is a simple solution however- turn the hard of hearing sub titles on. When I watched it again, the film suddenly came alive. I could rapidly assimilate the hidden meanings and then follow the narrative. I would have dreaded seeing this in the cinema without the "cheat."
The film travels to the Balkans, carrying the seeds and kernel of the tragedies. A psychological portrayal of a warrior, betrayed by politicians who appear cleverer, PR men, an ascending country in crisis, a growing gulf between rich and poor, rioting, civil war...a vision of a world that has passed or one yet to come.
All revolving around the power of women, whilst not wielding the sword, have a greater will to power, using their sons to revenge their life humiliation. Sons become pawns within their struggle to vent their internal rage, harnessing to the feelings about a man who feels he has been wronged, seeking emotional compensation for his "hurt," the snub of power delivered by the plebs.
The narrative is wrapped in the revenge motif, all entrapped within in a sociopathic state. When this becomes clear, the violence takes on a shinier meaning and Shakespeare ascends any video game drama. Even cut down into bite size chunks, like this, it careers over anything emanating from over the pond where dreams are manufactured to satiate any cudgel to a connection to reality.
Too near to the real, this portrays a dynastic will to power, where modern language with its bland anodine phrasing constantly camouflages naked greed and avarice. Elizabethan England was far more emotionally literate, delivered at a time the mass populace understood the hidden meaning, without subtitles and in a greater torrent of dialogue. Where half the population has gone to uni this falls emotionally flat, is that what you call progress?
on 29 September 2012
People who complain about this play being set in modern times are missing a vital fact about Shakespeare's work: He was writing to engage and entertain, not to be historically accurate. He sets Julius Cesar in Roman times, yet his soldiers yell "fire" in battle, the actors of the day often wore Elisabethan battledress, not togas, and they speak of the "clock striking"...long before Rome had striking clocks. If William were alive today, his actors would wear modern dress. There's nothing sacred about chainmail and doublets.
The film is a pared-down streamlined version of the play, which as Fiennes himself says in his commentary on the DVD, was done to get to the story and circumvent somewhat what he called "the density of the language." I found some of the camera work jittery and annoying, particularly when the jumpy scenes occur outside the context of media reporting. However, within the context of the production, it worked. I found it gripping, in that it made the brutality of war and rebellion a reality for the viewer. I have to say, I'm not used to getting adrenaline surges when watching Shakespeare, but it's a pleasant experience and the time flies by.
I studied Coriolanus at university and it was never one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. I never really got into the man's mind. However in this production it's plain that Coriolanus' arrogance and self-righteousness are his downfall; as someone once said: God deliver us from men who "know" they're right! After watching Fiennes' film you realise that Commander Coriolanus was never meant to engage our sympathy, as even MacBeth does in his downward spiral. There's a definite resonance with Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" in several scenes.
Vanessa Redgrave gives a sterling performance as Volumnia, the she-wolf who whelped the dragon. You can definitely see where Sonny Boy got his pride. Their face-off is a wonderful piece of staging.
on 22 November 2013
This film is the best Coriolanus I have ever seen, a tour de force so magnificently cast it proves the superiority of British actors over anyone else - on its own. All of the cast excel, but two performances stood out for me, just because I didn't believe these two actors could do Shakespeare so spectacularly well: James Nesbitt and Gerard Butler.
Obviously, this was a labour of love for its director, Ralph Fiennes, for whom I have had the deepest respect since I saw him perform Oedipus Rex at the National Theatre a few years back (chance of a lifetime, one calls those things). I did initially try to follow this with my Coriolanus book, but it was not possible as scenes have been changed to accommodate the fast-paced, modern day, adaptation and as the text has been a tad "manipulated" (and shortened in places where speeches were too long). The text editing actually feels (to me) as if it has been done solely for the purpose of presenting Coriolanus in an even darker light than Shakespeare himself intended him to be presented in. And Fiennes, with his acting, turns him into a completely unlikable individual with almost zero redeeming features (a worse treatment than the great playwright afforded him). That might explain why so many other reviewers here didn't like this film so much; it might be their subconscious instinctive negative response to the repulsive personality of Coriolanus, as he is portrayed here. He truly is an anti-hero and Fiennes has really stripped him of everything that makes him slightly sympathetic in the actual play.
An example of this would be the excerpt I used as a title for this review, which comes in Act 5, Scene 3 (or 1:34:30 in the film). In the actual play, these words are spoken by Coriolanus, in an almost pleading way, as part of a beautiful speech aimed at his mother (in front of whom he does kneel) and his wife, whom he addresses very lovingly, and whom he begs to give him a kiss "long as his exile and sweet as his revenge" (she does not appear to oblige). This has all been turned on its head in the film, robbing the viewer of even the slightest chance of liking Coriolanus. It is the same with his death scene, which does not happen in the Volscian city square as in the play, but on a deserted road with only Aufidius and his soldiers present, therefore robbing Coriolanus of some of the play's most sympathetic lines uttered in his favour, post-death. For example, in the actual play, Aufidius, after killing Coriolanus, claims that anger has now left him and proceeds to lift the lifeless body up respectfully, with some of the other soldiers. No such affection is afforded him by Fiennes, who obviously wants C. to die in the street like a dog, with no kind words spoken in his favour, post mortem. Coriolanus here dies a lonely violent death, no one speaks in his favour post-mortem and nobody carries his body off stage respectfully. Quite the people's view, then, for Mr Fiennes (and he must be a bit of a Brechtian, who also held similar views regarding the character of Coriolanus).
The setting of the film is modern day Serbia, engaged in a sort of 90s Serbo-Croat conflict (that represents the Roman-Volscian one). The locations are impressive, more so because they are not fake or staged. Chilling, would be an accurate word. It is not instantly clear why Fiennes chose this setting - and the initial violence requires some getting used to. Considering why he chose this, many ideas may occur to a member of the audience: Fiennes is a guys' guy, who likes war movies- or, possibly, he is trying to entice teenage boys to watch some Shakespeare. Or, it could be what my beloved opera blogger "Intermezzo" said, when she criticised the ENO's early 2013 Wozzeck production (while reviewing the recent ROH one, of October 2013/this month) - and I quote her directly: "...a playing up to the London audience's TV-nourished passion for simple storylines in ultra-realistic settings, no matter how the underlying work is betrayed". Somehow, I don't think it is any of these things and, whatever the purpose of Fiennes's setting, I do not feel the underlying work is betrayed by it. In my opinion, after careful consideration, all the modern-day violence seems to strangely bear a strong anti-war message, something that would be supported by the song Fiennes uses during the film's end titles (see more on that at the end of this review).
Anyway, do not be fooled by the combat-style setting: This is no Hollywood war saga but the "real" thing and you must be eager to experience some Shakespeare, in order to enjoy it. If you have trouble with the language, why not use the special English captions, meant for the hard of hearing? Although, I have to say that I found everyone's diction extremely clear; (wow, these British actors, my admiration does not wane and I live to worship- as for the language of the original text, how could anyone not love it?- I could never comprehend).
As for Coriolanus, the "underlying work" of Shakespeare itself, it is the penultimate one of his "dark" and tragic period, which lasted for almost ten years and started with Julius Caesar and Hamlet, peaked with Lear and Macbeth and ended with this one and Timon of Athens. They all deal with one of the seven deadly sins. This one's about pride. Coriolanus, just because he is brave and daring, considers himself a cut above everyone else and acts as if he is owed everyone's admiration, gratitude and respect. His pride and exaggerated sense of self-worth makes him despise the (starving) masses of ordinary Roman citizens and makes him repeatedly disrespect his superiors in the Consulate and also, ultimately, his own mother, a woman who he obviously obeys and admires more than any other person, but whom he doesn't even pose to consider, when he decides to turn traitor on Rome and its people. (So, no, this play has no connotations of an oedipal complex between C. and his mother; it might appear so to some members of this film's audience, but that is just because of Ms Redgrave's immense personality, who blasts one's head off with her interpretation of Volumnia. There is nothing like that in the actual play).
This is a play that would have been very relevant in Elizabethan times, portraying- through an analogy with Roman times- that time's impoverishment of ordinary citizens, the demagoguery of their politicians and the false hopes the masses place in egomaniacal, manipulative leaders, who will ultimately always betray them for money and/or power. Its message can just as equally be applied to our times. Only, in our times, the leaders that are proving unworthy of the masses' adoration and respect are not only the politicians and military people, but many of our "cultural" icons too, who profess to be grand artists educating the people, but are just self-admiring, proud, money-grabbing, flawed individuals, anyway. The ultimate tragic "person" in this play is us, the ordinary people, always ready to naively and generously admire the false idols of the times we live in, and place them on a pedestal, in the same way that the ordinary Roman citizens do in the market scene of this excellent film, where Coriolanus goes to practically beg them for their votes, while at the same time hardly being able to disguise his utter disgust for them.
Respect and appreciation to Mr Fiennes for this didactic rendition of one of Shakespeare's most difficult and demanding plays. I hope he might be directing other classics, too, soon.
Now, as regards the anti-war message that seems to perversely creep into this film via its violent setting, let me tell you where I get that from. (And, I might add that I was totally shocked by the film's end titles, when I heard someone singing in Greek; I thought I was tripping). The end titles come with a Lisa Zane(!) rendition- in almost perfect Greek accent- of Theodorakis's song "Sta Perivolia"(=In the Orchards). The lyrics and music were written/composed by Theodorakis himself in 1961 in Paris. It forms part of an 8-song cycle titled "The song of the dead brother" that was a "musical" theatrical piece that was first performed in Athens in 1962. First recording of the work was in 1963 and it still remains rather famous. It is one of the most prominent anti-war polemics of our times. Even if the lyrics could have been understood by the audiences of this film, they might appear quite unrelated to the Coriolanus plot- but they are not at all unrelated to the modern-day Serbia setting. The entire "Dead Brother" work- and this song in particular- deals with the tragedy of civil war (greek in particular, naturally, as it is by Theodorakis, but could be applicable to any civil war situation) and has gone down in history as such. Hence the anti-war message of the setting of this film, as I personally understand it.
You could do worse than renting/buying this film. Not everything is meant for pure pleasure; sometimes works of art are meant to make us think a little. Most of all, works of great men such as Shakespeare!