Coriolanus (2011)

*. I’m not a huge fan of the play. I don’t think many people are. I believe this is the only feature film adaptation there’s been of it, which is a distinction it may hold for a while.
*. And yet, there’s something about Coriolanus that bugs me, in a good way. It always leaves me with the sense that’s there’s more going on than you get on the surface. Coriolanus himself is so simple and transparent that he bears comparison to Shakespeare’s other noble men of authority (Titus, Brutus, Othello) who are tragically out of their depth in the duplicitous world of politics. But even more than in those other cases I’m left feeling that somehow there’s something more to him. Maybe it’s the awareness of his tragic destiny in his line at the end “But let it come.” Thanks mom! Like Hamlet, he knows that ripeness is all.
*. I think Ralph Fiennes captures this sense of something extra, something deeper in the part, while at the same time giving us a Coriolanus who is the pre-eminent man of action not words. This is all the more important since with the exception of his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Grave), one of Shakespeare’s greatest female roles but still one-dimensional, this play is a one-man show.
*. It’s a proud family. Volumnia’s pride is in thinking she knows her son better than he knows himself. She doesn’t, and he realizes at the end that this is her delusion, one she is herself unaware of. He chooses however to play along with her. I think this is more than just a sense he has, which is how Fiennes describes it in the commentary. But you can judge for yourself from what he gives us.

*. As an updating of Shakespeare to the present day I think it’s great. In almost every regard Fiennes’s translation of the play works, or at least works as well as I could imagine. I especially liked the use of the newscast, with real-life anchorman Jon Snow doing the honours. And the way the robe of humility Coriolanus has to wear in the market place is changed to a suit was perfect.
*. However, it is still an updating of a 400-year-old play and there are always going to be real limits on how much can be done. The idea that one man can be such a gamechanger on a modern battlefield, for example, doesn’t hold much water. But in all such adaptations you have to play along. Shakespeare’s battles weren’t realistic in their day either.
*. The battlefields here are in Serbia, as the film was shot mainly in Belgrade (with Montenegro standing in for Antium). Another plausible update? Sure. What it also leads to is that the proles, who are mostly played by local Serbian talent, tend to speak with accents, which (ironically) makes them seem like immigrants.
*. Some purists objected to the suicide of Menenius, but while this scene is not in the play, it’s not not in the play either and since it’s done without dialogue it seemed fair play on the part of screenwriter John Logan to me. In his book on Shakespearean tragedy Northrop Frye calls Menenius being rejected by Coriolanus, which he sees as “a miniscule version of the rejection of Falstaff,” “an annihilating snub which destroys his self-respect and even his reason for going on living.”
*. While the words are all Shakespeare’s it’s an aggressively truncated text. For example, none of Menenius’s fable of the belly speech remains. But there are few long speeches that are maintained. You can do Shakespeare with a more theatrical sensibility, in a bunch of long takes that let scenes play out as they would on stage. Branagh likes to do this. Or you can edit “aggressively” (Fiennes’s word for what he does here). And if you cut a scene up into a lot of fast cuts you might as well remove some lines while you’re at it. There’s no need to preserve continuity. As a result you keep the big lines but lose a lot of the content and flow of the big speeches. Fiennes thought this made the language more accessible. I’m not so sure, but I guess he may be right.

*. The DVD box has a pull quote hailing this as “William Shakespeare’s Rambo.” Ugh. Who would even want to see that? And yet this was a selling point.
*. For the most part I liked the casting. Fiennes and Redgrave are both solid. Jessica Chastain has nothing to do as Virgilia but that’s the part. Brian Cox is good as the avuncular senator Menenius. I really liked James Nesbitt as the sniveling, trouble-making tribune. I’m ashamed to confess that I couldn’t place Lubna Azabel though I was sure I’d seen her before (she played Nawal Marjan in Incendies). She’s good here, but not at all a sympathetic figure. I have to say the proles don’t fare that well in this production. Which is interesting given that they look like contemporary protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Coriolanus, as usual, appears to be a quasi-fascist.
*. I only really had my doubts about Gerard Butler as Aufidius. I didn’t think he had enough of the schemer about him. The character is obviously a complement to Coriolanus, but he’s not as given to wearing his heart on his sleeve. I wanted to see more of that.
*. Well, as I started out by saying this is likely the only Coriolanus you’re going to see on the big screen for a while. I think it’s a good production of a troublesome play, though one that I think tilts too far toward the fast-pace and abrupt editing of modern cinema, leaving a lot of the language scrambled or in the dust. Updating Shakespeare always runs some risks but I think they came through as well as they could have in that regard. In sum, it’s not without its flaws but it has a couple of strong performances and is successful in giving us a Coriolanus for our time.

11 thoughts on “Coriolanus (2011)

      1. Bookstooge

        Well, in the remake he would live, just like Statham did in The Mechanic reboot. So we could be looking at the birth of a new action franchise, with literary roots, making it an instant classic.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        And critics would have to take it seriously because none of them have read Coriolanus but they’d be afraid to admit it.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Sometimes it’s OK, especially if they emphasize the constants in human nature (love, ambition, etc.). The language can actually be made to work. You run into trouble with things like sword fights though!

  1. Leonidas Kazantheos

    I thoroughly enjoyed the film although it is set in more modern times (could have been Bosnia or Herzegovina), a tendency when doing Shakespeare I guess is to stick to the original text instead of modernising that as well. The original Shakespeare play was akin to surreal horror and this movie seems a good introduction to anyone out there who thinks Shakespeare is boring!


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