Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus

UK premiere of Coriolanus, Odeon West End 2, 16 October 2011

The opening shot of the film is a close-up of a man, whom we later discover to be Aufidius, sharpening an elaborately decorated sword on a whetstone. The primitiveness of this antique preparation for battle creates a fleeting impression that we are watching a film set in ancient Rome. But that is soon undercut by the sight of a modern television screen tuned to a news channel (Fidelis TV) showing the latest events in Rome.

We learn that there are food riots and that the army and police under the command of Martius are dealing with a popular uprising. A caption describes the location of these events as “A place calling itself Rome”, which is a direct borrowing, acknowledged in the end credits, of the title of John Osborne’s adaptation of the play.

The mutinous citizens watch the news in a flat and discuss their plan of action. They speak of Martius as their enemy against a backdrop of his appearances on television.

The mob marches on Rome’s central grain store, which is a series of large concrete silos protected by a fence and the paramilitary police. Menenius does not confront the citizens nor deliver his homily based on comparing the senate to the stomach, but he is seen commenting on television in support of the government line.

Martius steps out from among the ranks of the police striding confidently and full of purpose towards the crowd, many of whom are carrying banners showing his defaced image. He haughtily spurns their demands and soon the riot police are driving them back, banging their shields with their truncheons in the precise manner of a Roman army. The fact that some modern police forces use this tactic creates an interesting resonance: a reused Roman practice is replicated on film as part of a story set in Roman times, but presented as contemporary.

A captured Roman soldier is seen tied and bound being interrogated by Aufidius. He talks about the insurrections and is then shot through the head. This dialogue is taken from 4.3, a scene that occurs in the play after Coriolanus’ banishment, but here serves to set the scene in Rome and to establish the Volsces as bad guys.

The motion freezes after the execution and we see an onscreen caption. The picture expands to take in a meeting room where the video file is being viewed, and we see the Roman council of war reviewing their latest intelligence on Volscian activity. The fact that the Romans have access to Volsce files supports Aufidius’ suspicion voiced later that the Romans “are enter’d in our counsels”.

The action then continues with the meeting in 1.1 at which the enmity between Martius and Aufidius is confirmed “He is a lion that I am proud to hunt”. Martius is appointed to lead the war.

Sicinius and Brutus, the tribunes of the people, watch Martius on television and comment on his pride. The conflict between Rome and the Volsces is described as arising from a border dispute.

Aufidius is dispatched by the Volscian senators to fight against Rome.

Kinetic

This leads straight into the battle for Corioles. Martius leads his troops in street battles against heavily defended Volscian positions. There is something thrilling about Shakespeare’s words being part of such a kinetic battle scene with dialogue punctuated by the incessant clatter of bullet casings hitting the ground. At one point an anti-tank weapon is fired at a building with explosive results.

Martius leads his section towards an abandoned bus. They discover that it is booby-trapped and the bus explodes before they can get clear of it. Martius lies stunned on the ground.

Martius’ son takes pot shots at tin cans with an air rifle in the garden of the palatial family home. We see an edited version of 1.3 in which Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) discusses the war with Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) and Valeria.

It is to the credit of the film that it did not shy away from some of the play’s more obscure references. So in this sequence we have Volumnia trying to cajole Virgilia out of her fretful mood by reminding her that all Penelope’s yard “spun in Ulysses’ absence did but fill Ithica with moths”.

Back in Corioles, Martius recovers and strides back through the gap in the bus torn by the explosion. He rallies his men, who have retreated, castigating them for being “souls of geese”.

They charge through the destroyed bus and into the courtyard of a building, still under incoming fire from the defending Volsces. At this point in the play, Martius enters into the gates of Corioles and is not seen until his return. The film invents action taking place inside the building representing ‘the city’. Martius fights from room to room, in one encountering an old woman who offers him water from a bottle which he drinks. In another, he accidentally shoots a civilian with his sidearm. Finally, he fights a Volscian soldier with his dagger and kills him but only after incurring wounds himself.

Martius emerges from the building with blood streaming down his head, which he dismisses as “rather physical than dangerous to me”.

He leads his men back into the building in search of Aufidius. They encounter each other but the battle is reduced to mano-a-mano by Martius’ request “I’ll fight with none but thee”. With their men standing aside, they drop their rifles and body armour and fight with daggers inside the building. After a protracted struggle they crash out through a window and onto the ground below. Incoming mortar fire stuns them both, effectively putting an end to their fight.

Victorious

The victorious Martius is received in Rome. Volumnia dons her military dress uniform and sets off from their residence, briefly telling Menenius (Brian Cox) about the wounds Martius has received (taken from 2.1). Once inside the senate, Volumnia delivers her eerie summary of his character:

Before him he carries noise, and behind him he leaves tears:
Death, that dark spirit, in’s nervy arm doth lie,
Which, being advanc’d, declines, and then men die.

Cominius (John Kani) formally welcomes Martius in triumph and bestows the cognomen Coriolanus on him. He greets his tearful wife Virgilia and treats her tenderly.

Back in Corioles, Aufidius surveys a Roman atrocity, a family lies slain inside their people carrier. The Volscian general vows to revenge himself.

Sicinius, played with an air of great cynical opportunism by James Nesbitt, and Brutus (Paul Jesson) discuss the situation in a bar until they are interrupted by Menenius. The bar location works well because when Menenius says he likes a cup of hot wine, he fingers a nearby wine glass as if to prove the point.

Coriolanus is lauded by Cominius in the Senate, but he feels uncomfortable with his efforts being praised and at one point stands outside the senate chamber hearing Cominius’ echoing voice.

The actual Serbian senate chamber was used for this scene. Brian Cox, who plays Menenius, said at the post-screening discussion that he found filming there quite unnerving as the walls were lined with images of some quite nasty Serbian nationalist ‘heroes’.

Coriolanus is recalled and told to present himself in the market place to ask for the people’s approval. He already shows signs of unease at this.

A motorcade brings Coriolanus to the market place and he meets various citizens and treats them with cold, disdainful respect. The one exception is a war veteran. Recognising him as a fellow soldier, Coriolanus is pleased to receive his support “A match, sir.” An old woman accuses him of not loving the common people. We also see some of the conspirators who organised the protest at the grain store at the start of the film.

After the citizens have given Coriolanus their support, the tribunes quickly cause dissension among them and they change their minds.

Verdict

Back at the senate, Coriolanus receives news about Aufidius’ renewed war preparations via a video link on his MacBook Pro. On his way into the senate chamber he is blocked by the tribunes who tell him of the people’s new verdict.

Coriolanus’ anger at this reversal boils over into shouting about Sicinius’ absolute “shall”. He rails against the concessions to the people, which he fears will “break ope the locks o’th’senate, and bring in the crows to peck the eagles”. When Sicinius accuses him of treason, Coriolanus wrestles him out through the door into the open air where their scuffle is seen by the public. Sicinius uses this as proof to plebeians that Coriolanus “would take from you all your power”.

In the following confusion, Sicinius’ key line “What is the city but the people” is given to one of the plebeians, which gives the line more traction.

The debate with the tribunes, Menenius and a plebeian is shown as a panel discussion chaired by Jon Snow. Some of the semi-comic sequences involving servants were not filmed, taking some of the light relief out of the story. However, the inclusion of Jon Snow more than makes up for this excision, as his onscreen presence produced much amusement. On another occasion he also acts as a news reader bringing news of Volscian action.

Coriolanus has his wounds bound and bathed by Volumnia as he swears to remain constant. This means that she tends to him on two levels: his physical wounds and his state of mind. As this takes place in private, Menenius lines were cut from the sequence.

At one point Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia enters the room while his mother is wrapping his bandages. She senses that she is intruding on a private moment and withdraws without saying anything. She occupies herself with her son instead. Later Virgilia strokes Coriolanus’ chest hair in bed.

This additional scene underlined Coriolanus’ crucial bond with his mother, relegating his wife to a secondary position. This key relationship proves crucial later in the story, so anything that underscores it makes the storytelling work better.

Volumnia convinces him to go back to the tribunes.

Coriolanus is jeered and whistled at as he enters the television studio where the presentation to the tribunes is to take place. The tribunes accuse him of wanting to be a tyrant. Menenius defends him and tries to mollify his anger, but the charge of treason pushes Coriolanus over the edge.

He rails against the people in full glare of the cameras. Making this a televised event with a huge audience makes this a much more public and exposed situation than a simple meeting.

Banishment

Brutus pronounces Coriolanus’ banishment whereupon Coriolanus calls them all “You common cry of curs” and pronounces his banishment on them.

During all these exchanges, no reference was made to the Tarpeian rock from which miscreants were thrown in ancient Rome.

Volumnia, Virgilia and Valeria meet the tribunes outside the building and Volumnia harangues them and invokes her curses on them.

Coriolanus tramps through a war-ravaged country village with a backpack and beanie, surveying the desolation and poverty around him. He beds down for the night on a piece of dry land within a marsh with his departing words to his mother ringing through his head.

This detail bore the traces of the research that went into the film, as the ancient Volscian territory did include a substantial marshy region.

He awakes and continues his lonely journey, hitching a lift from a lorry driver, until he reaches the coastal town of Antium. Threading his way warily through the streets, he spies Aufidius being greeted warmly by the townspeople. He follows him back to his base and forces his way into the room where Aufidius is eating. The Volsces turn their handguns on him, and Coriolanus has to remind Aufidius who he is. He explains how he has turned his back on Rome and wishes to serve the Volsces.

Aufidius looks moved by Coriolanus’ words and hugs him warmly. He compares his feelings for Coriolanus compared with those he had for his wife. This closeness is accentuated in a silent scene, which shows the hirsute exile being shaved, first by an old woman, but subsequently by Aufidius himself.

The shaving of his head restores Coriolanus to the warlike appearance that characterised his previous accomplishments. He is recreated a warrior, but this time on the side of the Volsces.

The last part of Aufidius’ greeting to Coriolanus, in which he gives him one half of his commission to lead the war, is kept over until after he has been cleaned up and they are talking together in a meeting room over a table strewn with maps.

The comic sequence with the servers was not filmed, mostly because the people surrounding Aufidius were all soldiers who looked strangers to wit and banter.

As the news channels report Coriolanus’ alliance with the Volsces and his advances into Roman territory, dissension breaks out among Rome’s politicians as they realise their mistake in banishing him.

Excellent

The Volscian army parties late at night and Aufidius takes the opportunity to discuss Coriolanus with one of his lieutenants. Aufidius looks at a copy of a magazine called Praeclarus (“excellent” in Latin) as the lieutenant regrets that Aufidius shared command and glory with the Roman. Aufidius too seems to sense the danger Coriolanus poses and concludes with a threat to deal with him once Rome is taken.

Back in Rome, the lines given to Cominius in 5.1 are transferred in the film to Lartius. He looks quite shocked when telling Menenius, the tribunes and others about Coriolanus seeming not to know him when he went to plead for Rome to be spared.

Menenius is persuaded to meet Coriolanus to see if he can be more effective. We see Menenius emerge from behind some tanks parked on a deserted road and head across no man’s land to the waiting Volsces a few hundred metres away.

He is brought into the turncoat’s dark lair, which is full of tattooed soldiers, and after a brief exchange Coriolanus sends him packing. Back by the Roman tanks, Menenius informs Cominius of their opponent’s hard-heartedness. He uses lines borrowed from 5.4, saying that Coriolanus “is grown from man to dragon”.

Following his failure to secure a peace, Menenius finds his way to a deserted canal, and after carefully removing his watch, proceeds to slit his wrist with a knife. He bleeds to death despairing and alone.

This is the pure invention of the film, but Menenius’ potential suicide is hinted at in the text: in 5.2, after being dismissed by Coriolanus, Menenius tells ones of the mocking Volscian guards “He that hath a will to die by himself, fears it not from another”.

Frisk

Coriolanus’ battle preparations are interrupted by the arrival of the women and young Martius, his son. The soldiers wolf-whistle at Virgilia as she is led through security checks. A soldier tries to frisk the women, but a more honourable man pushes the soldier’s hand away.

Unlike the previous encounter with Menenius, this one takes place in the open air with Coriolanus sat in the barber’s chair in which he was ritually shorn by Aufidius.

They all bow to him and Coriolanus is instantly moved. Volumnia wears a dark coat and when she fixes her son with her unblinking stare, she reminds him that their sorrowful appearance is the result of his banishment.

Volumnia pleads with him to be merciful to the Romans. She and the others kneel before him in supplication. But when he will not yield, she castigates him and says he is not her son.

This is a tour de force performance from Vanessa Redgrave. The accumulated pressure on Coriolanus breaks him. He kneels at her feet and sheds tears as he cries for his mother. This sequence would not have been as effective without the earlier scene in which Volumnia tended to Coriolanus’ wounds, establishing what she means to him.

He turns to Aufidius to ask what he would have done. The Volsce’s simple reply “I was mov’d withal” betrays nothing of his dark intent.

Volumnia is greeted joyously in Rome and the peace treaty is signed by Coriolanus and Cominius.

Aufidius stands in a ruined building at the side of the road at the border between Rome and the Volsces, rather than in Antium where the final scene of the play is set. He discusses with his fellow soldiers how Coriolanus has betrayed them.

When Coriolanus returns from Rome and walks up the deserted road towards the Volsces. Aufidius greets him with name of traitor and addresses him merely as ‘Martius’. The argument escalates with Aufidius calling him ‘boy’ at which point Coriolanus taunts him with his exploits against the Volsces, whereupon all the soldiers turn their knives on Coriolanus, fighting in the centre of the deserted road.

Coriolanus defends himself, stabbing one of the men, but is overcome by Aufidius.

As Aufidius plunges his knife into Coriolanus, the sound fades out and we are left with the almost silent image of their bodies gripped close in combat. Coriolanus reels in pain. Instead of letting him fall, Aufidius cups the back of his head in his hand and lowers him gently, almost lovingly, to the ground where he dies.

Conclusions

The film is a masterclass in how to adapt Shakespeare intelligently and entertainingly for the big screen. The screenwriter, John Logan, is an ardent admirer of Shakespeare and this shows in the way that the story has been tweaked, but not distorted, to enhance the original play.

The closeness of Volumnia and Coriolanus in the wound dressing scene makes Coriolanus’ final breakdown more convincing. The decision to have Menenius commit suicide after failing to secure peace is an interesting one.

Coriolanus is a play about the application of brute force. This theme is underscored by the way the film uses the power of Shakespeare’s language, the impact of which is enhanced by convincing battle sequences and explosions. Close-ups are also used to great effect to focus on individual reactions in a way theatre cannot.

But what most impresses most, besides Shakespeare’s language, are the performances. Vanessa Redgrave radiates throughout as Volumnia, her determined gaze being one of the memorable features of the piece. If, as widely tipped, the film is rewarded by the Baftas and Oscars, then her performance will doubtless be among those lauded.

Ralph Fiennes managed to make the haughty Coriolanus believable and almost sympathetic, mainly because his enemies at all levels of society were painted in an unflattering light. Neither the plebeians nor tribunes were shown as virtuous, so that he appeared to be just one element of the general mess into which Roman society had descended.

It is unfortunate that current political developments make the depiction of food riots and chaos in southern Europe seem prophetic rather than historic.

In seeking to update a story set in Europe’s past, the film has produced something eerily like our near present.

Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus goes on general release in the UK on 20 January 2012.

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