Fiennes finds heart of Bard’s patriot
Film version of play finds its stride on film thanks to superb cast
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.