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  • Jeff Marker

    husband, dad, teacher, filmmaker, writer, film geek, musician, DIYer, vegetarian, Bulldog, Buckeye, Nighthawk

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It’s possible that a Shakespearean adaptation captures the political zeitgeist better than any other 2011 film (even though it isn’t set to hit many theatres until January 20, 2012).

Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut transplants Shakespeare’s Coriolanus into a fictional but familiar setting. Fiennes plays the title character, a great soldier who loves Rome, the city which he has defended fiercely many times. The combat scenes are played in contemporary settings reminiscent of The Hurt Locker or the evening news: urban streets, concrete-colored camouflage, IEDs, and automatic weapons.

The people of Rome are struggling through a terrible economy now, though, a period of relative peace. They are hungry and demanding that their leaders do something about the city’s dire situation. Coriolanus despises the people for not improving their own situation. He blames the victims of the city’s mismanagement rather than acknowledging that the social and political system favors the already wealthy and powerful. (Gee, doesn’t that sound familiar!)

Motivated somewhat by patriotism but mostly by a will to power, Coriolanus runs for public office. He is out-maneuvered by more effective politicians, though, and his missteps incite a bloody riot. His political enemies get him banished from the city.

At that point, Coriolanus forms an alliance with Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), the leader of an enemy state. Coriolanus vows revenge against Rome, ignoring the pleas of his closest advisor (Brian Cox), his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), and his wife (Jessica Chastain). This being a tragedy, it’s no revelation to say that Coriolanus has put himself in a no-win situation.

The big obstacle for Coriolanus, both artistically and commercially, is the labyrinthian language of the play. This is one of the most difficult of Shakespeare’s works. If you can parse it out, you’ll find the writing insightful, thick with metaphor, and powerful. It contains numerous proclamations of earth-shaking powerful. The difficulty is reaching that level of understanding. It can be an opaque play for even experienced readers of Shakespeare.

Coriolanus is a rich text, however. The film is about a born warrior’s inability to mold himself into a tactful politician. It’s about the veiled disdain for the working class harbored by many (most?) politicians. It’s about mob mentality and the exploitation of the people. It’s about pride, honor, and (dis)loyalty. It’s about mothers and sons, men and men.

If not for the iambic pentameter, one could easily believe Coriolanus was also written in response to our current Recession-era political and social movements. It’s about 99ers, 1-percenters, 53-percenters, and all the other recent manifestations of the divide between the haves and have-nots.

Shakespeare on film is always a tough sell, so filmmakers tend to stick with the comedies or well-known tragedies. Fiennes is going way out on a limb with this particular tragedy. Coriolanus offers timeless, broad meaning and has been compared to King Lear and Hamlet. (T.S. Eliot loved the play.) But the title character is also regarded as one of Shakespeare’s least sympathetic protagonists. Let’s put it this way: Bertolt Brecht began, but never finished, an adaptation of Coriolanus which he intended to use to exploit his verfremdungseffekt, or alienation effect. He apparently chose the play because he felt Shakespeare’s own version already alienated audiences.

The production was clearly a passion project rather than a commercial venture. Fiennes produces, directs, and stars. He shows a degree of control and command over his medium not often found in first films. Amidst his directing duties, he gives a charged, inspired performance. His whole being, body and soul, is on display here.

His is only one among several strong performances, though. This is easily Butler’s finest hour. He has always possessed a formidable presence but has been trapped in lightweight, mostly awful movies. Chastain continues her breakout year, as impressive a breakout year as I can remember. Cox is his usual, scene-stealing self.

Redgrave shines as brightly as anyone, in a role that functions similarly to that of Lady Macbeth. Her Volumnia is just as militant as Coriolanus and drives him into battle after battle. She brags about his battle wounds and kills like ordinary mothers boast about grade cards. She then urges Coriolanus to run for public office. Their relationship is rather Oedipal, too. Volumnia holds more sway over Coriolanus than his wife. In one scene, she tenderly bandages his wounds and implicitly substitutes for Virgilia.

Coriolanus is, in a word, astounding. Whether it will play widely or make any cultural ripples remains to be seen. But this is an impressive achievement for everyone involved, especially Fiennes.



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