Fiennes finds heart of Bard’s pa­triot

Film ver­sion of play finds its stride on film thanks to su­perb cast

Vancouver Sun - - MOVIES - BY KATHER­INE MONK

CO­RI­OLANUS Star­ring: Ralph Fiennes, Ger­ard But­ler, Jes­sica Chas­tain and Vanessa Red­grave Di­rected by: Ralph Fiennes 14A: vi­o­lence Run­ning time: 123 min­utes Rat­ing:

Wither the man of war. He is friend to no one, and the en­emy of all. But we need his un­ques­tion­ing ser­vice to main­tain the sta­tus quo, and so, he has been ex­ploited by the pow­ers that be since time be­gan.

Shake­speare cer­tainly un­der­stood the sol­dier’s sac­ri­fice at ev­ery level, and nowhere are his feel­ings more ar­tic­u­late — per­haps ag­gres­sively so — than in Co­ri­olanus, one of the Bard’s long­est, dens­est and blood­i­est oeu­vres, which chron­i­cles the rise and fall of a glo­ri­ous Ro­man hero.

Caius Mar­tius ( Ralph Fiennes) cuts an in­tim­i­dat­ing fig­ure as he strides into the open­ing frames wear­ing com­bat fa­tigues, ammo belt and a fa­cial ex­pres­sion so in­tense, it could stop a tank.

In fact, it does stop a tank — in ad­di­tion to a roil­ing stam­pede of re­volt­ing Ro­mans des­per­ate for food. This one man fears noth­ing, and while it makes him ap­pear some­what heroic in the face of a ris­ing ocean of pop­u­lar re­sent­ment, it also makes us a lit­tle wary of just how far he’d be will­ing to go.

In­deed, Caius Mar­tius is the epit­ome of the fight­ing man: beloved by his peo­ple when he fights for them, but a po­ten­tial op­pres­sor, come a time of civil war. When we see Fiennes fill the frame with his manly bravado in the first act, there’s no easy as­sign­ment of good or evil, and this is prob­a­bly the first ser­vice Fiennes — as di­rec­tor and star — ren­ders to his source ma­te­rial: He has enough faith in his au­di­ence, and the play’s the­matic in­tegrity, to keep it am­bigu­ous.

For some, this re­luc­tance to paint the walls black and white will prob­a­bly be­come prob­lem­atic, be­cause we are used to see­ing all mil­i­tary movie ex­er­cises as back­slap­ping vol­leys of “Sem­per Fi” bro­mance.

Hol­ly­wood sim­ply does not have the de­sire, nor the re­quired amount of be­low- the- belt brass, to ques­tion what Eisen­hower dubbed the big­gest en­emy to per­sonal free­dom: “the mil­i­taryin­dus­trial com­plex.”

With few ex­cep­tions, Amer­i­can war movies are pro­pa­ganda pieces de­signed to make men in uni­form look sexy, po­tent and un­ques­tion­ably heroic.

So good on Fiennes for tran­scend­ing cliché by sim­ply be­ing faith­ful to Shake­speare’s ideas, as well as some rather tor­tu­ous lan­guage. With­out re­veal­ing any hint of emo­tional bias, ei­ther for or against Caius, Fiennes sim­ply marches for­ward with plot and gives the viewer a chance to ap­proach the cen­tral char­ac­ter on his or her own terms.

From wit­ness­ing his courage in the face of the mob, we soon watch Caius face down his num­ber 1 foe: Au­fid­ius ( Ger­ard But­ler). It’s a rous­ing fight be­tween the two lions steeped in war­rior’s blood, and although each one is scarred by the en­counter, they both sur­vive — vow­ing to fin­ish the other off at their next meet­ing.

When Caius re­turns to Rome, he’s hailed as a hero, and his pol­i­tick­ing mother Vo­lum­nia ( Vanessa Red­grave) wants to pa­rade his wounds be­fore the peo­ple. The son clearly loves his mother — per­haps even more than his wife ( Jes­sica Chas­tain) — but he looks like a two- year- old forced to wear a tie when his mother urges him to make hay from his scars.

He re­fuses. More trou­ble­some still, he doesn’t suck up to the gos­sip­ing tri­bunes who care only about their own po­lit­i­cal ca­reers. Caius Mar­tius can’t play the game, be­cause his pro­fes­sion is far too grave for pet­ti­ness. He deals in life and death at the end of a Bowie knife, and, as a re­sult of his all- too- real job, he finds all the de­cep­tion, du­plic­ity and per­sonal am­bi­tion of pol­i­tics dis­taste­ful to his starched soul.

And this is the tough­est part of the sol­dier to grasp, but one Fiennes han­dles with el­e­gance: How do you main­tain your hu­man­ity when you kill oth­ers? Is it even pos­si­ble to em­brace any brand of moral­ity when your pur­pose is en­tirely vi­o­lent?

Thanks to Fiennes’ burn­ing in­ten­sity on cam­era, we can feel the strug­gle in ev­ery stac­cato move. He would like to be me­chan­i­cal. He would like to dis­miss the tears of his wife and mother, and when he comes very close to be­ing hu­man, it seems like he’s be­ing sucked into a black hole.

The scenes be­tween Fiennes and Red­grave are the film’s high­est mo­ments, be­cause the words all make sense when fall­ing from their well­trained mouths. More­over, mother and son are the em­blem­atic heart of this story of war and peace. In the fi­nal act, Vo­lum­nia wants peace for the peo­ple of Rome. But she must con­vince her son it’s the right thing to do, and, in this con­fronta­tion be­tween com­pas­sion and re­venge, be­tween ego- fu­elled blood lust and hum­bled hu­man­ity, we find all the di­men­sions of emo­tion that gen­er­ally lead to armed con­flict.

We also see the pain of moral de­feat in the same mo­ment as out­ward vic­tory, en­sur­ing the whole tableau feels faintly pa­thetic — be­cause, in the end, war is pa­thetic. Bru­tal, in­hu­man and pow­ered by van­ity and am­bi­tion in top of­fices, war is our basest state and gives birth to gen­er­a­tions of vic­tims.

Shake­speare un­der­stood the empti­ness of the war hero, and how his man­u­fac­tured glory is swept aside once the con­flict is over. Fiennes em­bod­ies this flex­ing pathos in ev­ery scene. Even when he is vis­i­bly spit­ting the di­a­logue in great gobs of thought, we feel frus­trated pas­sion be­hind them, and, as a re­sult, the throb­bing heart of this story of war and peace.

A smart up­date of an al­most im­pen­e­tra­ble play, Co­ri­olanus not only finds all the con­tem­po­rary par­al­lels, it re­it­er­ates the tragedy of the end­lessly ex­ploited pa­triot who hopes to earn love at the end of a bar­rel.

Jes­sica Chas­tain and Ralph Fiennes star in Co­ri­olanus, a film that also marks Fiennes’ di­rec­to­rial de­but.

Ralph Fiennes is at his in­tense best in this retelling of Co­ri­olanus.

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