The first scenes are a bit of a shock as we watch a CNN-like news update about war between Rome and the Volscian nation. I thought for a second that this Ralph Fiennes directed movie (his first as a director) was going to be one of those unfortunate Shakespeare updates that try too hard to win over a modern audience. But as the movie conjures up this barbaric world of war, shot in ugly parts of Romania, it becomes clear that Fiennes and his wonderful adapter John Logan conceived this strange Shakespeare tragedy as a very powerful antiwar movie. What makes men go to war? What are the consequences of the notions of honor and heroism? Who is fit to rule a country? Isn’t war primitive? It is not a civilizing force.
Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, whom Fiennes met when he worked in The Hurt Locker, uses a frantic hand held camera to capture the messiness of war. The fight scenes are chaotic, the colors are murky and washed out, and the entire aesthetic is brutal. This is not glorified combat. There is none of the stiff, symmetrical pageantry one sees in other films of Shakespeare. Coriolanus is not one of Shakespeare’s most compelling plays, but Fiennes’ update is visceral, thrilling and extremely poignant; it happens to be one of the best adaptations of Shakespeare to the screen. Screenwriter John Logan uses modern newscasts to dispense with all the boring messengers that declaim expository info, and this smart device helps make Coriolanus’ tragic flaws even more dramatic. Fiennes plays the title character, Marcus Caius, a renowned soldier whose brutal exploits make him a natural leader of Rome. Problem is, he refuses to pander to the populace, who perceive him as authoritarian, arrogant and aloof (he is). It is a one-note performance of sheer imperious stubbornness. He is a principled but inflexible man, so unwilling to give in to the ass-kissing that is necessary in a democracy, that he rather banish himself away from his family and his country, than court the people’s favor. He is borderline insane. I felt that the character could have used a soft spot somewhere, but I’m always impressed with Fiennes’ disinterest in being likeable or pandering to the audience. He was surprisingly charming in the Q&A at the screening I saw, but he always plays his characters with utter disregard to his own vanity.
Coriolanus is more than an antiwar pamphlet. There are some interesting notions about authority and democracy in this movie. The “people” come across as rather unsavory and obnoxious activists, who are nevertheless easily swayed by media and political manipulation by two wily tribunes (James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson) who conspire to manipulate the masses against Coriolanus, with the curious consequence that you end up rooting for the autocrat. One must remember that in Shakespeare’s day Roman democracy must have seemed bizarre, but him being the most modern writer who ever lived, he somehow foresees this tension on who is to have power and how easily it is to manipulate the masses.
There is one absolutely extraordinary performance in this movie, and that is Vanessa Redgrave’s as Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother. It’s a great character: a mother who wants her son to go to battle. She steals this movie in a way that I haven’t seen an actor do in a long time. Her scenes with Fiennes are the best Shakespearean and the best screen acting you will ever see. She brought tears to my eyes a couple of times with her fierce conviction. Brian Cox, playing a trusty family advisor, a garrulous but clever politician, is also excellent.
Logan and Fiennes interpret this play fittingly to our day and age. One cannot help but think about Bushie and his Mission Accomplished, about the lies we were told about nucular weapons in Iraq, and though the film comes with a bit of delay, (since the media is not showing us anything anymore that might outrage us) as long as there are soldiers in Afghanistan or Iraq, it will be a potent reminder of why we are still waging these destructive wars to this day.