King Lear has some grim moments, but I’ve always thought of Coriolanus as the bleakest of Shakespeare’s plays. Ralph Fiennes has confirmed that impression with a film adaptation which adds ultra-violence to the singularly depressing view of human nature found in this story.
Not only does Fiennes play the role of Coriolanus, the Roman general rejected by the citizens he has done so much to protect, this movie marks the actor’s debut as a director. He has begun with a bang, or rather an entire series of detonations. Fiennes has not set the action back in the days of the Roman Empire, his Rome is a modern city where people watch battles on the TV news and soldiers dress like US commandoes.
This modernisation turns the film into a commentary on politics, power and democracy that is even more relevant today than it was in Roman times. Although the “citizens” often resemble a bunch of old lefties from the 1970s, they are as greedy, gullible and reactionary as any electoral strategist might imagine them.
The story of Coriolanus dates from the fifth century BC, the early days of a Roman republic that lasted 500 years before Caesar became dictator in 44 BC, and Augustus restored the imperial throne in 27 BC. Whatever the historical basis of the character there is scant evidence of his existence. Fact or fiction, Gaius Marcius was a great commander who won a historic victory over the Romans’ enemies, the Volscians. He was given the name “Coriolanus” after his siege of the city of Corioli in 493 BC, and like all Roman military heroes was expected to run for the office of Consul.
This mighty soldier turned out to be a hopeless politician. His aristocratic upbringing made him unwilling to curry favour with the plebeians. He says it is like letting in “the crows to peck the eagles”. The historical Coriolanus was accused of misappropriation of funds and sent into exile. The Coriolanus of Shakespeare and Ralph Fiennes is condemned as a traitor by his political oponents, the populist Tribunes, Brutus and Sicininius (played with maximum sleaze by Paul Jesson and James Nesbitt).
Seeking his revenge Coriolanus joins up with his old enemy, Aufidius (Gerard Butler), the general of the Volscians, and leads a new assault on Rome. The punch-line is that only the pleas of his mother, Volumnia, can dissuade this ruthless warrior from taking the place apart. Fair enough. What soldier could stand up against a statuesque old amazon like Vanessa Redgrave, who has lines such as: “Anger’s my meat”?
One of the staples of Shakespearean criticism is ‘The Fatal Flaw’ that precipitates the downfall of the tragic hero. The concept comes from Aristotle, but was expounded in detail by writers such as A.C.Bradley. It is vaguely useful to see Coriolanus in this light, even though he has so many flaws it’s hard to single out the crucial one. His inability to bend himself to the will of the people could be seen as a mark of excessive pride or arrogance, perhaps an incapacity for empathy. Today we might call him a sociopath. When Coriolanus joins the Volscians he embraces the title of traitor, adding veracity to what had previously been a false accusation.
Fiennes plays Coriolanus as a deeply troubled soul. He is the complete soldier who has no time for fine words and political gamesmanship. Even more of an action man than Tony Abbott, he lacks the useful skill of being able to say any old rubbish the masses want to hear. In fact he has so little taste for diplomacy he seems almost autistic. When his friend, Cominius attempts to talk him out of the assault on Rome, he meets a figure who is “a kind of nothing”, living only for vengeance. At this point some viewers may find their thoughts turning, unkindly, to one K.Rudd.
Coriolanus is only really alive in the heat of battle, and we get plenty of opportunities to see him in full flight. Fiennes portrays him as Rome’s answer to the Terminator, blasting away with a machine gun, running amok with a knife, or any other deadly weapon. It’s astonishingly bloody and brutal.
If one can weather this assault on the senses, there is a powerful political message to be gleaned from Coriolanus. It is not simply the tragedy of a noble but flawed warrior, it is the tragi-comic spectacle of a political system mired in duplicity, populism, short-term fixes and spin. Sound familiar? Although the action sequences are filmed, appropriately, in the Balkans, Fiennes’s Rome feels a lot like London, Washington D.C., Paris or Canberra. Coriolanus, with his lofty ways, is the rare politician who will not sacrifice his ideals. The minute he puts down his machine gun he is an easy target for the faceless men.
Published by the Australian Financial Review, March 17, 2012
Coriolanus, UK, Rated M, 122 minutes