Director: Ralph Fiennes
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, Paul Jesson
Four centuries ago, Shakespeare wrote a play called Coriolanus, which no one bothered to stage in his lifetime. Forty years ago, John Osborne, the playwright perhaps best known for his Look Back in Anger (1956), wrote an adaptation, A Place Calling Itself Rome, which no one has yet bothered to produce. A decade or so ago, I was lucky enough to watch Ralph Fiennes play the titular role on stage. And this week, the release of this film, so unexpected in India, proves just how much Shakespeare lends himself to contemporary situations.
The movie begins as the play does, with riots nearly breaking out over shortage of grain. As the patrician Senator Menenius Agrippa (Brian Cox) soothes starving citizens on television, the heroic General Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes) goes out to face an angry mob, and cows them down with a stentorian speech. He exudes power and determination, but it’s his utter contempt for the lower classes that silences them. He bends them to his will again when he returns after conquering the Volscian city of Corioles against all odds, and earns the surname ‘Coriolanus’ in honour of the victory.
However, a class that can be ruled can be led, and so it is that two conniving tribunes, Sicinius (James Nesbitt) and Brutus (Paul Jesson), incite their anger against Martius. What happens when a hero is labelled a traitor? And can two heroes who are sworn enemies, who can only be defeated by each other in battle, respect each other for their nobility?
The answers unfold through Martius’ relationship with Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), the General of the Volscian army.
The movie zooms through its two-and-a-half hours, and strangely, its archaic language and fantastical names are never at odds with its contemporary setting. Shakespeare has been thrown into a world of machine guns and 24-hour news cycles before, notably in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. But Coriolanus scores far more simply on the strength of its actors – Fiennes, Butler and Vanessa Redgrave (playing Coriolanus’s mother Volumnia), all of whom are stage performers, and Jessica Chastain, who has perfected the role of the gentle, obedient wife, at least in her three 2011 releases.
The gripping action sequences are supported by lines only Shakespeare could have written. There is a kiss “long as my exile, sweet as my revenge”. Of Coriolanus’s twenty-eight scars, “every gash is an enemy’s grave”. “My gracious silence,” Coriolanus says to his wife, “wouldst thou have laughed to see me coffined that does weep to see me triumph?” There is “no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger”.
Who but Shakespeare could have expressed the need for hypocrisy among politicians so logically, articulately or beautifully? And who but Fiennes could have turned in a performance that is so nuanced, even with exaggerated stage movements? He spits as he seethes, the nerves on his shorn scalp stand out as he rages, and his eyes are voluble during the silences.
Fiennes’s finesse as a filmmaker is so obvious it’s hard to believe Coriolanus is his directorial debut. The recurring motif of an eagle in the play is captured not only through dialogue, but subtly portrayed in a painting.
As Volumnia coaxes Coriolanus to further his political power, his wife Virgilia glances at the image in passing. Menenius’s description of Coriolanus as a “dragon, [who] has grown wings” is illustrated by a tattoo at the back of Coriolanus’s neck, which the camera doesn’t ever zoom in to. The violence is not gruesome, and a suicide is made all the more poignant when the man carefully removes his watch and lays down his cigarette before slashing his wrist.
The embers glow even as his life slips out. The less-is-more factor carries through to the end titles, where Lisa Zane sings a capella version of Sta Pervolia.