Screenwriter John Logan was just lauded with an Oscar nomination for his adaptation of the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret into the Scorsese-directed film Hugo. But he tops himself with yet another kind of adaptation entirely: obscure Shakespeare.
Though great swaths of Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus have been cut out of the new film version, starring-and-directed-by Ralph Fiennes, no violence has been done to the text. It breathes with cinematic life and startling immediacy.
Part of that is accomplished by transporting Shakespeare’s Rome to a modern, Balkan setting. Only a few elements seem out of place — such as the custom of begging the people for a consulship nomination, and the laying down of guns to have a knife fight in the middle of a battle.
That fight is between Aufidius (Gerard Butler) and Caius Martius (Fiennes), a Roman general better known by his war-name Coriolanus. Coriolanus and Aufidius are mortal enemies, but when the people of Rome, stirred up by some scheming politicians, banish Coriolanus, he joins forces with Aufidius to seek revenge upon the entire city, his family included.
Like all of Shakespeare’s classic plays, there are layers upon layers. You may know Shakespeare as a great poet of joy, friendship and love; after this play, you will be convinced he had equal talent in portraying pride, righteousness and rage. Coriolanus will bow to no man; but his unyielding mother Volumnia, played with hypnotic conviction by Vanessa Redgrave, has her fingers fast around his heart, moreso than even his best friend Menenius (a superb Brian Cox) or his fragile wife (Jessica Chastain).
If you’re the type of person who already knows they don’t like Shakespeare, then why are you reading this? If you love Shakespeare on film, as I do, then rejoice! Not since Kenneth Branagh’s debut with Henry V has an actor/director given delivered such a one-two punch of a film. Fiennes is masterful in his portrayal of Coriolanus, and confident behind the camera, filling the movie with moments, small and large, that amplify the themes of the text.
Martial law, famine, war, political ambition, the meaning of loyalty to country, loyalty to one’s fellow soldiers — and loyalty to family — the play and now film explores each in turn. To Shakespeare, Rome was not a quaint and noble old civilization, but a land of savage violence. (Witness Titus Andronicus.) It was also a reflection of the Elizabethan society in which he lived, a way to disguise political comment in the form of historical curiosity.
When Coriolanus was performed circa 1607/08, the execution of former hero general Robert Devereaux, 2nd Earl of Essex, in 1601, would still have been in popular memory. There had been famines, and popular insurrections. And the English had fought for their lives to turn back a Spanish Armada. All of which I bring up only to muse on what people will be getting out of our great films today. What has made Shakespeare transcend time and place so effortlessly? I have some ideas, but I’d rather you go see Coriolanus (if you live in one of the three cities in which it is screening) and share your own reactions.
In this time of wars and occupiers and political infighting, does Coriolanus still draw blood?