Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus: What becomes of the returned soldier?

September 17, 2012

Coriolanus (2011), dir. Ralph Fiennes
Coriolanus Films Limited, DVD Edition. Distributed by Icon Film Distribution Pty Ltd.

Reviewed by Gayle ALLAN (with thanks to Chris Palmer)

Your voices: for your voices I have fought;
Watch’d for your voices; for Your voices bear
Of wounds two dozen odd; battles thrice six
I have seen and heard of; for your voices

(Coriolanus 2.3)

Caius Martius Coriolanus is a classic, tragic figure – a man who falls from great heights because of his fatal flaw, a victim of his own arrogance and pride. But not entirely. He is also the victim of political maneuvering and manipulation by a system that he reluctantly participates in, and which eventually destroys him. Caius Martius, given the name “Coriolanus” after his capture of enemy city Corioles, is a consummate warrior, a soldier’s soldier, but he’s no politician, and definitely no diplomat. While his progress from war hero to civic leader is presumed inevitable, it is clear from the start that his place in society is on the outside of it, defending it, rather than living in it.  Coriolanus’ predicament is a favourite topic for Shakespeare in many of his plays – questioning how society deals with soldiers outside the battlefield. What happens to them when they return to the social and domestic space? Like Macbeth, and Othello, and other Shakespearean generals and warriors, Coriolanus is at home on the battlefield, where he can exercise great violence and be valorised for it, yet back in civilised society he is a “fish out of water”. He is a man used to discipline and the relatively simple rule of kill or be killed, but is now expected to play by very different rules. The public require and demand uncompromising ferocity from him on the battlefield but are surprised and offended by his roughness of speech and manner when he returns. Not surprisingly this transition is neither easy nor smooth, and Shakespeare’s returned soldiers are often vilified and rejected by those who once encouraged them and benefited from the security the soldier’s previously sanctioned violence brought them (this has resonance in any historical period including our own). When this happens to Coriolanus, his sense of betrayal is profound and he is baffled by the people’s ingratitude. He fought and suffered for the people but, manipulated by political operators Sicinius and Brutus, the people reject him and it this that sets him on the path of bloody revenge.

Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus asks this age-old question – “what becomes of the returned soldier?” His film focuses on this problem and presents us with a complex vision of a man whose usefulness to society is defined purely by his ability to kill better than anyone else, but is somehow expected to lose this brutality once he is off the battlefield. The film constantly tests and prods our reaction to this violent and vengeful man. As Fiennes’ says in his interview (in the “Special Features” of the Icon DVD edition), Coriolanus challenges an audience to resist him. While we are repulsed by his cruelty and arrogance in the opening scenes of the food riots in Rome, we come to see he has an integrity which is callously manipulated by the world around him and which he is eventually brought down by. Fiennes (who both directed the film and plays the title role) evokes a complicated reaction from his audience. Set in the Balkans, and using footage and imagery reminiscent of recent Balkans conflicts (the film was actually shot in Belgrade), Fiennes creates a strong sense of a violent, war-torn country with a dysfunctional society and political system where people are angling for position and title, and in the middle is a man (Coriolanus) who wants recognition and yet doesn’t want recognition at the same time. This is his dilemma and weakness.

War is hell: the battle for Corioles

One problem with the play as it is written (and sometimes performed), is that Coriolanus can seem a slightly ridiculous figure because he loses his temper so easily, often prompted by the merest of prodding. But this film is careful to show that Coriolanus is out of his element in the political world. He is needed and the centre of attention, but also not wanted and not wanting to be there. His impulse to anger and abuse is shown as an understandable reaction to plots and unreasonable demands directed at him. Fiennes does not allow Coriolanus to be anyone’s fool, and the occasions when he actually loses his temper are shown not as the result of him being goaded, but rather that deep down he always intended to do this – that these are planned and controlled episodes, not impulsive and infantile explosions. This is particularly evident in the scene where he is banished. The scene in the film is set up as a talk show, Coriolanus senses by the mood of the audience that this is a political ambush, and he is already prepared for the outcome and fully intends to reject Rome on his own terms rather than accept their banishment. He is angry but controlled. This is not an impulsive outburst, nor has he been completely outflanked. There is a sense that he wanted to go anyway. Again in the final scene when Aufidius and his countrymen turn on him (betrayed again), Fiennes’ Coriolanus is not surprised by their treachery but indicates he knew his murder was coming, and in many ways welcomes it.

The film makes some other interesting, and I think valuable, cinematic interventions which are effective in making the play’s ideas clearer. Some of these additions also widen the scope of the story. In reading the play, you can get the impression that no one is fully present except Coriolanus and his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), but in his film Fiennes includes Menenius (Brian Cox) and Aufidius (Gerard Butler) as two other pillars of the story, by the use of visual vignettes which underline their importance. The scene of Aufidius and his staff strolling through Antium with friends, admiring girls and accepting admiring handshakes highlights the difference between Aufidius and Coriolanus. The former’s charisma, a true man of his people, contrasts sharply with Coriolanus’s charmlessness and indifference to the people of Rome. This contrast is an important one which is made clearly by this quite short interlude which is deftly juxtaposed, before and after, with the banished Coriolanus’s lonely and painful progress through the countryside, sleeping rough and arriving in Antium a broken man.

By showing Menenius playing with Coriolanus’s son young Martius (Harry Fenn) and sitting at the family table with Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) and Virgilia (Jessica Chastain), the film squarely situates Menenius as Coriolanus’s supporter and makes it clear how important he is and will be in Coriolanus’ fate. His visual involvement in the domestic scene shows him as a genuine family friend and immediately distinguishes him from some of the other less transparent politicians. Fiennes also adds a poignant scene near the end of the film where we are shown Menenius’ fate after he fails in his attempt to realign Coriolanus’s loyalties. The play is silent on what happens to Menenius but he is too important a figure in Fiennes’ film to disappear without a trace. He is the moral compass of the film, the only good man it would seem in an otherwise brutal world of shifting morals and allegiances. Even though Fiennes shows Menenius taking his own life, it is an addition to the story which doesn’t jar, but seems perfectly in keeping with the dignity and integrity of the character.

Central to any adaptation of Coriolanus is the relationship between the son and his mother and Fiennes uses some inventive ways to communicate the closeness of this relationship. At all state affairs, Volumnia is dressed in military uniform, like her son. Fiennes adds a scene where Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia comes across Volumnia dressing her son’s wounds in the bathroom. Virgilia’s reaction is of embarrassment, and that of an intruder witnessing something intimate that she is not part of, and she retreats hurriedly. The mother definitely usurps the wife in many ways, even  though the film is careful to show the women as allies.

The climax of the film is the long night scene just before the attack on Rome where the young Volscian soldiers shave their heads to emulate Coriolanus. This cultish worship of Coriolanus, combined with the firelight, the pulse of music, the motif of the snake tattoos, and the almost tribal dancing, all give the film a male eroticism with a sinister skinhead resonance (this culminates in Aufidius’s embrace of Coriolanus as he kills him). Gerard Butler brings great masculinity and charisma to his role as Aufidius, and his interactions with Fiennes clearly show the love/hate relationship between the two warriors. As Butler says in his interview, Aufidius loves and is drawn to the power, genius, and nobility of Coriolanus but he is also somebody he hates “without measure”. Coriolanus stirs Aufidius to be the best warrior he can be, but at the same time he has destroyed everything he has ever stood for. For Aufidius, there is no one like himself in his own ranks, his only equal is Coriolanus. He admires him but he hates him. He is obsessed with him. The final embrace of Coriolanus and Aufidius at his inevitable murder demonstrates the complexity of their relationship. Aufidius holds the injured Coriolanus’s head in an almost loving gesture before delivering the fatal blow. He holds his enemy close to his shoulder and appears to kiss him as they fall slowly to the ground, triumphing but mourning the loss of Coriolanus as his mortal enemy dies in his arms.

The “cult” of Coriolanus: bald-headed Volscians surround their hero

The notion of transporting the story to the recent Balkans wars works well in the film, although Fiennes indicates that the choice of Belgrade for the location shooting was based more on economic factors than aesthetic ones, as eastern European countries offered enough infrastructure with low enough costs to make the project viable. But Fiennes is absolutely adamant that this film is set in our times, and modern warfare, not some indeterminate period in history. (The food riots in Rome look uncomfortably familiar to those in troubled Euro-zone countries post-GFC.) Whether or not the choice of Belgrade was as utilitarian as Fiennes indicates, there have been few better cinematic treatments of the Balkan wars which are in many ways so typical of all contemporary wars (the Roman soldiers in the stunning sequence in which Coriolanus takes Corioles remind us of American soldiers in Afghanistan or Iraq – the house to house fighting in Fallujah would be a close parallel).  The sheer filth and dirt of war (and of cities in much of the world) is also on display –  the graffiti, the ugliness, the piles of rubbish graphically shown when Coriolanus is sleeping rough after he has banished himself.

The film has excellent production values. The cinematography is superb and the sound quality is remarkable in its clarity. This is very important when taking a Shakespearean adaptation to a broader audience who may not be familiar with the rise and fall of the language. The clarity of the sound also reflects how good people like Redgrave, Fiennes and Cox are at speaking verse. They avoid the strained shouting of stage production, and Fiennes was keen to avoid any kind of heightened delivery or “bombastic” approach to the speaking of the lines, preferring to keep the rhythm and volume as natural as possible. Fiennes and scriptwriter John Logan have edited out a lot of the text of the play, which is necessary as this is a very wordy play, but maintain the integrity of the ideas and flow of the story with cinematic interventions like those discussed above. Some of the important and powerful speeches have been retained largely intact, but in the hands of such fine actors, their meaning is apparent to even a Shakespeare novice. In particular, Redgrave’s timing in the big scene of Volumina’s appeal/moral blackmail to her traitorous son towards the end of the film is so very good. Her craft is impeccable as she demonstrates how to divide a long speech with pauses and shifts in emphasis and tone. Redgrave’s Volumnia comes across as a consummate politician making the tribunes or Menenius look like rank amateurs in comparison. As Fiennes say, Redgrave is beyond great.

Ralph Fiennes as Caius Martius Coriolanus and Vanessa Redgrave as his mother, Volumnia, as she appeals to him to return to Rome

The Icon Films DVD of Coriolanus has only one “special feature” addition to the otherwise normal DVD offerings.  However it is a very interesting addition to the understanding of the film as Fiennes as well as some of the other actors and production staff talk about the project, their approach in the film, and some of their ideas about the play and its modern relevance in general.  James Nesbitt’s observations about his character Sicinius and his reflection on current politicians is very illuminating. My biggest disappointment is that Vanessa Redgrave is not featured in the interviews because for me, her performance in the film is a stand out.

Coriolanus is part action film, part documentary, part news reel, but all drama. Fiennes has said that his aim with this huge and difficult project was to translate onto the screen his passion and obsession with the play, and the titular role, of this little-loved work. He certainly has achieved this. Outstanding performances by Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Gerard Butler, and Fiennes himself in the four lynch pin roles, combine with a wonderful supporting cast, magnificent production qualities of both sound and vision, clever and incisive cinematic interventions and an unforced but thought-provoking modernity to make this film compelling viewing. It is confronting, and it is challenging, but it also ultimately rewarding.

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One Response to “Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus: What becomes of the returned soldier?”

  1. Chris Gasper said

    What a well written, thoughtful review. I too, found the film excellent and agree that Vanessa Redgrave & Brian Cox were outstanding – though there were no poor performances by anyone. Yes, even Butler was decent.

    One thing I have yet to find discussed much online or elsewhere is the ending; they cut a good chunk out of the ending (over 100 lines IIRC). This does give the film version greater clarity, while the play has a slightly ambiguous, less clear cut ending. I felt the film’s conclusion was more satisfying.

    But, I would be interested to read other people’s views on this: do they prefer the film’s final scenes, or do they think Shakespeare shouldn’t be tampered with?

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