Volumnia’s little soldier

Coriolanus, Showcase Cinema Bluewater, 20 January 2012
Coriolanus, Greenwich Picturehouse, 31 January 2012

Ralph Fiennes’ film version of Coriolanus has achieved something that mere theatre directors can only dream of.

It combines powerful cinematic effects with the beauty and force of Shakespeare’s words, as well as thoughtful and intelligent direction, to create a production of a Shakespeare play that feels completely of the present day, in many ways a prediction of our near future, while staying firmly rooted in the original text.

Taking a second and third look at the film, I was reminded that one particularly good directorial choice centred on the relationship between Coriolanus and his mother Volumnia. The film makes a point of highlighting the intensity of this relationship as a way of explaining the warrior’s final surrender to Volumnia’s entreaties.

One of the devices is fairly obvious. Volumnia talks to Coriolanus while dressing his wounds in the bathroom of the family home. His wife Virgilia walks in on them and withdraws in embarrassment at interrupting this intimacy.

But an earlier indication of the bond between mother and son is more subtle.

During the battle at Corioles a booby-trapped bus is detonated by the defending force. The explosion stuns Martius and knocks him to the ground. The action cuts to his home where we see a domestic scene between Volumnia and Virgilia.

Volumnia imagines Martius in the heat of battle and says to Virgilia:

Methinks I see him stamp thus, and call thus:
‘Come on you cowards, you were got in fear
Though you were born in Rome’.

She speaks these words in voice-over as the picture cuts back to Martius waking from the shock of the blast. Her voice seems to be ringing in his ears, rousing and energising him. This apparent psychic link could more readily be explained as a childhood memory of his mother’s encouragement welling up as a result of being stunned by the bomb.

Once upon his feet, he rounds on his troops castigating them for having “souls of geese”.

This sequence reinforces the idea, contained in the text, that his valour was instilled in him from an early age by Volumnia. It is her voice that appears to make him get up and fight again.

This connection, along with the bond witnessed in the wound binding sequence, is used to explain why Coriolanus breaks down in the face of his mother’s disapproval. Volumnia was his inspiration and backbone. When she disowns him, the withdrawal of her support and approval brings about his capitulation.

In the spirit of creative theft it would be interesting to see a theatre director replicate a similar effect on stage.


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