The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

CO­RI­OLANUS is Shake­speare’s last tragedy and his most clas­si­cal. He had com­pleted the big four ( Ham­let, Othello, Mac­beth and King Lear) and had writ­ten his two great Ro­man plays, Julius Cae­sar and Antony and Cleopa­tra, when he em­barked on this story of a pa­tri­cian gen­eral who de­spises the com­mon peo­ple of Rome and is driven to wage war against the city he has crowned with tri­umphs. A Ro­man play, it de­rives from the his­to­rian Plutarch, but the story is lost in the mists of Ro­man Re­pub­li­can times.

Co­ri­olanus has noth­ing like the lush­ness of anec­do­tal de­tail that makes Antony and Cleopa­tra in par­tic­u­lar such a rich homage to the nu­ances of the an­cient world. It is all con­cen­tra­tion and clas­si­cal form. It has an ar­ro­gant, head­strong hero who spits the com­mon herd out of his mouth like bile and comes a crop­per be­cause he will never sue for favour.

There is noth­ing cosy or lov­able about the hero. The play be­longs to the outer, less pop­u­lar cir­cle of the Shake­spearean canon and it is only since Lau­rence Olivier played Co­ri­olanus — first in the 1930s and then in 1959 with Edith Evans as his mother, Vo­lum­nia — that the play has edged into the frame for the princes of clas­si­cal act­ing.

It stands to rea­son that Ralph Fi­ennes, who was a Shake­spearean ac­tor be­fore find­ing fame in films such as Schindler’s List and The English Pa­tient, should want to memo­ri­alise his stage suc­cess on film, even to the point of di­rect­ing him­self. He has en­vi­able cast­ing, with Vanessa Red­grave as Vo­lum­nia, ar­guably the great­est Shake­spearean role for an older woman; Brian Cox as wily politi­cian Me­ne­nius; and Jes­sica Chas­tain as Co­ri­olanus’s wife Vir­gilia.

It is par for the course for stage pro­duc­tions of Shake­speare to be in mod­ern and non-pe­riod dress — we take for granted that Ian Mck­ellen’s King Lear for Trevor Nunn opens with the di­vi­sion of the king­dom in a court that might be Ro­manov or Hab­s­burg, and that we’re likely to see Shake­spearean com­edy in board shorts or hip un­der­wear.

It’s a prob­lem­atic choice, how­ever, with a fun­da­men­tally il­lu­sion­is­tic medium such as film, which can sim­u­late an­cient Rome or the Mid­dle Ages with the ef­fort­less wave of a wand. Mck­ellen’s Richard III for Richard Eyre at Bri­tain’s Na­tional Theatre looked nat­u­ral on stage in 30s mil­i­tary clob­ber, with stiff up­per lip and fas­cist over­tones, more than it did when it was trans­lated on to the screen in 1995 by Richard Lon­craine, re­plete with tanks and heavy ar­tillery to sim­u­late mod­ern war­fare on Bos­worth field where a horse can be worth a king­dom.

The most fa­mous of all Richard IIIS — Olivier’s — has elab­o­rately ac­cu­rate 15th­cen­tury me­dieval cos­tumes and de­sign just as his Henry V, which be­gins at Shake­speare’s Globe Theatre, jumps back to a dreamy Book of the Hours me­dieval­ism. Ken­neth Branagh’s Henry V film has a dif­fer­ent look but it’s still heraldic and hel­meted.

When it comes to the Ro­man plays, di­rec­tors have found it hard to re­sist a toga. The most dis­tin­guished of these is Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1953 Julius Cae­sar with Mar­lon Brando as Mark Antony, James Ma­son as Bru­tus and John Giel­gud as Cas­sius. This is black and white (though a colour print with Brando in a red toga ex­ists) and it is as clas­si­cal look­ing as a col­umn. The an­cient world set­ting is also there in Charl­ton He­ston’s ver­sions of Julius Cae­sar and Antony and Cleopa­tra with him­self as Antony and Hilde­gard Neil as Cleopa­tra. It’s in­ter­est­ing that we tend to re­mem­ber mod­ern dress Shake­speare on stage — say, the Sam Men­des-di­rected Richard III with Kevin Spacey — as sim­ply some­thing that pro­vides no bar­rier to the imag­i­na­tion, whereas mod­ern dress in a film im­poses pa­ram­e­ters.

For Co­ri­olanus Fi­ennes has cho­sen what A. D. Hope called ‘‘ the drab green and des­o­late grey in the field uni­form of mod­ern war’’ as­so­ci­ated, just at the mo­ment, with film and tele­vi­sion images of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fi­ennes is cer­tainly in­tent on bring­ing out the moder­nity of Co­ri­olanus and one ar­gu­ment in favour is that the 20th cen­tury re­dis­cov­ered it. For­mi­da­ble lit­er­ary critic and scholar Frank Ker­mode re­marked on the un­sur­passed ar­chi­tec­ton­ics of the play and com­pared it to the Beethoven of the late string quar­tets. He was ar­tic­u­lat­ing an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the wiry bril­liance of the play’s very free and flex­i­ble verse at a time when ac­tors such as Olivier and Richard Bur­ton were dis­cov­er­ing im­pas­sioned co­her­ence and a po­lit­i­cally riv­et­ing, dra­matic pres­ence in the play’s hero.

Co­ri­olanus is one of Shake­speare’s most un­usual char­ac­ter­i­sa­tions. The drama­tist was fa­mously cross-tex­tured and moody in his ap­proach to tragedy: Ham­let, as a role, is full of high com­edy and lyri­cal in­tro­spec­tion; Othello is the prey of a vil­lain and the dupe of a trick; Mac­beth is a vil­lain with con­scious­ness and a con­science equal to his ca­pac­ity for evil. King Lear has plenty of com­edy and tilts to­wards the con­so­la­tions of ro­mance, only to shat­ter them, and its un­par­al­leled power comes from the way Shake­speare presents us with a blind brute of a hero who has ca­pac­ity to love and suf­fer un­bear­ably.

Giel­gud once said he was not very in­ter­ested in Co­ri­olanus (at least for him­self as an ac­tor and di­rec­tor) be­cause it was one of Shake­speare’s most po­lit­i­cal plays. It be­gins with Me­ne­nius, who de­scribes him­self as be­long­ing to ‘‘ the right-hand file’’, the con­ser­va­tive pa­tri­cian party, ar­gu­ing that the pa­tri­cian class in Rome is like the belly of the body: it has a cen­tral func­tion.

Co­ri­olanus is the war hero, the great gen­eral and star sol­dier. As Caius Mar­tius he con­quers the Vols­cians, a neigh­bour­ing en­emy of the Ro­mans, in their city of Co­ri­oles and is nick­named Co­ri­olanus in con­se­quence. He has shown con­sis­tent con­tempt for the com­mon peo­ple of Rome and when he is in a po­si­tion to get the con­sul­ship has to beg for their sup­port. The en­e­mies of the pa­tri­cian party, the peo­ple’s sen­a­tors (who are pro­fes­sional politi­cians), know this is go­ing to be dif­fi­cult for him and they play on it. Mean­while his pa­tri­cian in­ti­mates — his fierce tough-minded mother Vo­lum­nia and Me­ne­nius, the suave old smoothie of a Tory politi­cian — urge him to ask nicely (what­ever con­tempt he feels). Ev­ery­thing goes wrong and the sen­a­tors — worldly men, how­ever morally thread­bare — con­trive it so the peo­ple (who have been ami­ably enough dis­posed to the war hero) ban­ish him.

Co­ri­olanus in an ex­tra­or­di­nary mo­ment of colos­sal in­vec­tive turns the re­jec­tion back on them: ‘‘ You com­mon cry of curs, whose breath I hate/ As reek o’ the rot­ten fens, whose loves I prize/ As the dead car­casses of un­buried men/ That do cor­rupt my air — I ban­ish you.’’

Olivier did the speech with an ab­so­lutely flinty con­tempt. No ac­tor has been bet­ter as giv­ing the fas­cist flash of fury to his voice, turn­ing it into a knife or sabre. The record­ings of Olivier high­light the ab­so­lute hau­teur of one of na­ture’s aris­to­crats. It’s one of the great losses to the world of Shake­speare on film that Stan­ley Kubrick didn’t record Olivier’s Co­ri­olanus for the world (Olivier played Co­ri­olanus for the sec­ond time af­ter play­ing Cras­sus for Kubrick in Spar­ta­cus).

Bur­ton played Co­ri­olanus at the Old Vic in the early 50s and it was as if he were find­ing the dark side of his Henry V. The au­dio record­ing sug­gests a man with an ab­so­lute, nearly re­li­gious be­lief in his own pow­ers and in his right to com­mand. With his stony bari­tone, his clipped con­so­nants and his abil­ity to reg­is­ter scathing con­tempt he was ide­ally equipped for the part.

Ralph Fi­ennes, cen­tre, as Co­ri­olanus

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