One of the many reasons for the longevity of William Shakespeare’s plays are their timeless insights into human behaviour. While many of the comedies focus on how love, desire, jealousy and pride motivate us, the histories and tragedies contain searing insights into politics, use and abuse of power, and the tension between public and private life. Shakespeare’s plays have therefore long been ideal for modern interpretations as regardless of when or where the plays were originally set or written, their content can be used to make potent commentaries on other periods and times that are more familiar and relevant to the audience. More akin to a classical Greek tragedy than most of Shakespeare’s better-known tragedies, Coriolanus hasn’t been adapted into a film until now. Its brutal and cynical depiction of politics, the military and public life renders it less accessible than the plays with a more sympathetic tragic hero or even empathetic anti-hero. However, it is the play’s brutality and cynicism that director and lead actor Ralph Fiennes explores to make this new adaptation disturbingly relevant and modern.
The setting, ambiguously written as ‘a place calling itself Rome’, is a contemporary grey, decaying industrial city. Coriolanus was shot in Belgrade, Serbia before the 2011 London riots, but the large English cast, scenes of civil upset and themes of class conflict uncannily evoke the images televised during those events. Fiennes possibly planned to make Coriolanus as a statement about a once powerful European nation in decline with allusions to war-torn eastern European states, Northern Ireland conflicts and 1980s English riots during the Thatcher era, but he seems to have inadvertently created a premonition of things to come in England.
Fiennes is an imposing figure as Caius Martius Coriolanus, the commander of the army in a time of war and civilian food shortages. With his shaved head, scarred face and bulked up physique, he’s portrayed as a fierce warrior who walks a fine line between honour and arrogant self-righteousness. He’s the ideal tool for the type of authoritarian government that pretends to be listening to the will of the people as he can be used against the starving rioters, but his war record also makes him into a national hero and therefore a political weapon to gain votes. Most interestingly is the dynamic where Coriolanus becomes championed by the actual people he previously oppressed, displaying Shakespeare’s razor sharp observations on how fickle and easily led the voting public can be, and the peculiar dynamic where the public are often persuaded to support political parties and ideologies that do them the most harm.
The middle section of the film deals with Coriolanus’s public image, and Fiennes stages many of the scenes as if they were happening during a political chat show or filmed news report. Not all of the attempts at restaging crowd forum scenes as fiery debates in a television studio work as seamlessly as Fiennes no doubt would have liked, simply because such scenes feel too small and contained to truly suggest today’s global audiences and mass media. However, Shakespeare may be forgiven for not foreseeing the scope of media influence since his observations about political rhetoric, especially the vast chasm between what public figures say and what they really think, are chillingly relevant.
Both sides of politics come across as particularly grubby, respectively exploiting Coriolanus’s perceived glories or perceived faults for the benefit of their own political careers. While it would have been easy to portray Coriolanus as an unsympathetic brute, Fiennes does a remarkable job in later scenes at making the audience momentarily understand the contempt he displays towards the public and his new political peers. Similarly, while his ruthless determination as a soldier make him a frightening presence in the civilian world, he does elicit some sympathy from being shunned for being a soldier in peace time presumably by the same society that wanted him to be a soldier during wartime. In this respect there are even traces of John Rambo from First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, 1982) within Fiennes’s Coriolanus.
It is the grimness of the world created by Fiennes that allows for a glorified thug like Coriolanus to appear moderately justified in key scenes of the film, and the uncomfortable confusion this elicits from the audience is a real strength. The character is further developed through the portrayal of his relationship to his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), which is not so much Oedipal in affection as more regressive where she dotes over him like a child, to the exclusion of his wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain). Coriolanus’s infantilism becomes most pronounced when shunned and banished by the state he responds by joining forces with his sworn enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) to lead his insurgent-like army against Rome in revenge.
The dramatic change from loyal patriot to deadly traitor is not only the act of a child who hasn’t got their own way, but also that of somebody who is self-destructive. Previous scenes where Coriolanus appears to be opposed to hearing his achievements and glories exalted publicly suggest intense modesty, but it fits the pattern of a rage filled man who hates his enemies, hates his fellow citizens and most of all hates himself. Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s most damning depictions of public life and the psychology of a career soldier, and Fiennes’s adaptation is a reflection of spin, media influence in public debate, the cult of personality and the glorification of war.