Monday, January 23, 2012

Coriolanus: The Indomitable Roman

In his directorial debut, Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes shows a genuine conceptual talent. He’s made a modern-dress version of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy, with the title character (played by Fiennes himself), a general in Marine camouflage gear who starts off by defeating the neighboring Volscians, waging an Iraq-style war shot with hand-held cameras. (John Logan, whose credits include Gladiator, Hugo and the stage play Red, wrote the screenplay.) The cinematographer is Barry Ackroyd, and these early sequences are reminiscent of his best-known assignment, The Hurt Locker, with their dusty, metallic lime greens and their kinetic, you-are-there camerawork. Fiennes sets the scenes with TV news headlines and, in one particularly witty episode, he and Logan translate an exchange among Romans about Coriolanus as a Frontline-style debate. When Coriolanus returns from the war, the tribunes who plot his downfall are a pair of smug suits (James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson) who manipulate the Roman people so craftily that instead of being elected consul he’s exiled; his aristocratic pride, which prevents him from abasing himself to them – he won’t show them his battle wounds – is interpreted as proof that he doesn’t prize the good of the populace above his own selfish concerns. In the movie he comes from a distinguished military family: his bellicose mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), who boasts that she’d rather lose eleven sons in battle than have one behave like a coward, attends his welcome-home reception uniformed like a WAC.

Coriolanus is one of the plays in which Shakespeare addresses the fickleness of mobs – Julius Caesar and to a lesser extent Timon of Athens are the others – and they’re notoriously tough to pull off. The crowd scenes in Coriolanus, like the ones in Julius Caesar, are more theoretical than dramatic; even though you know that Shakespeare’s right about mobs, it’s hard to buy the moment when a line or two from a charismatic speaker, or even Marc Antony’s oration, sways the Romans to flip their sympathies. It’s even harder to render scenes like these convincing on a big screen when the style you’ve chosen is documentary realism, but Fiennes makes an honorable try. The main problem with the movie is that it lacks tonal variety, a flaw Fiennes and Logan have inherited from the text. Fascinating as it is, with extraordinary scenes and a couple of memorable characters (Coriolanus and Volumnia), Coriolanus must be Shakespeare’s most somber tragedy; even Timon contains more humor, though it’s bitter and caustic. And once the title character, stung to fury by his treatment at the hands of the Romans, defects to the Volscians and allies himself with their leader, Aufidius (Gerard Butler, in a surprisingly believable performance), and the filmmakers have run out of visual invention, the movie slips into an undifferentiated grayness.

Gerard Butler & Ralph Fienne in Coriolanus

But it certainly has its virtues, including the performances of Redgrave and Brian Cox as Coriolanus’s friend, the senator Menenius, who stands by him and strives in vain to teach him enough political savvy to rescue his position with the Romans. Cox gets Menenius’s practiced- politician side: the authority, the easy intimacy, the quick, charismatic smile, the ingratiating style that works on all generations. But his affection for Coriolanus and his family is sincere, and we can see that his friend’s inability to kiss up – the very thing Menenius manages with so little strain – and the way he’s misinterpreted as a result saddens Menenius deeply. (Logan gives him a tragic ending – he slashes his wrists when Coriolanus joins the enemy – that isn’t in Shakespeare’s text.) It’s a performance of tremendous warmth and skill. Redgrave’s Volumnia is elegantly understated, which makes the violence and jingoism in her words all the more unsettling. Unlike her son, Volumnia has a sense of diplomacy, but she also has a capacity for anger and a steep backbone that make sense of the blood line. It’s a frighteningly convincing piece of acting. When Coriolanus joins the Volscians, we see his mother and his wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) watching the news on television, and as Redgrave’s Volumnia takes in her son’s radical actions, we can read both horror and comprehension in her silence. We don’t read much on Chastain’s face, though; it’s not a very revealing performance. Chastain has won a great deal of praise -- and a National Society of Film Critics Award -- for the range of work she’s done in supporting roles over the past year, but I don’t think it’s all been equally effective. (Her best, I’d say, was in Take Shelter.) Her early scenes in Coriolanus suggest that Virgilia may feel conflicted about her husband’s commitment to playing a warrior’s part, but that idea gets lost and you don’t have much sense of her in the second half of the movie. (To be fair, the role is underwritten.)

Fiennes is perfectly cast as a man whose uncompromising nature amounts almost to arrogance – too perfectly, perhaps. He’s very effective but rather icy, even in the scene where his emotions are touched by the pleas of his mother and his wife and his little boy (dressed as a miniature soldier) beg him to return to Rome. Fiennes has an unyielding quality as an actor; he’s best in movies where the repellent quality of his characters is a starting point for either fascination (Schindler’s List, his small role in The Good Thief) or a journey to an unlikely redemption (The End of the Affair). He’s a superb technician; he handles the verse here expertly. But you may not be able to get much farther than admiration for him, and I suspect that Coriolanus can’t work if you don’t feel some sympathy for the way in which this man is flayed alive by his own indomitability. I saw the Canadian actor Colm Feore in the part once, and he made it resonate; Robert Ryan, who played it famously at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut in the Sixties, must have been amazing. Fiennes doesn’t have the vulnerability for tragedy.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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