… blood streams through the firmament … Marlowe (Doctor Faustus)
Caius Marcius, called Coriolanus (Fiennes) waiting for suppliants
Dear friends and readers,
Do what you have to do to see this film. Maybe it’s not worth a plane ride, but if it’s a longish trip by car (4 hours is not too much to drive) or bus, don’t hesitate. Don’t miss it. We left our house (in Alexandria, Va) at around 3:15 (short car ride, short walk, 25 minutes by train, 10+ minute walk) for a 4:50 show. Good thing we arrived by 4:15 or so. By 4:30 the show was sold out. As we walked out at around 7, the next show was sold out.
I suppose my reader knows the play’s story; if not, here’s a synopsis. This, so I can cut immediately to what makes the film so riveting and important: the acting and how Shakespeare’s core story was made a parable for our times combined with the directing in the context of its mise-en-scene. It seemed to me to break with conventions of such films.
I’ve just read Stephen Greenblatt’s review in the NYRB (59:4, March 8, 2012, 4, 6) It’s unfair to Fiennes. How irresistible it is to ridicule, especially when a character role demands no humor from the actor — though Fiennes managed a moment here and there, as when in exile we see him like today’s homeless people, sitting in front of his tent, looking cold, hungry, slightly puzzled, staring at his stuff.
Fiennes’s directing (the blocking) and acting were (as they say) pitch perfect, uncannily so. I’ve seen him as good before and unlike many other actors he can take on many types (from the bullying dense duke of The Duchess, to the sensitive diplomat of Constant Gardener [the film is dedicated to Simon Channing-Williams who directed CG], to Heathcliff, to the neurotic, yes seeming tall, thin and tortured in an early Prime Suspect). Here he actually managed to project sensitivity now and again amid the crazed militarism of Caius Marcius. The towering fits of rage where he spits out intense hatred and scorn for ordinary people and most of his peers are brought on by something in him that is a nervous wreck, neurotic,but not intimations of Hamlet because there is something dark in his eyes, obtuse, and he is edginess itself. Fiennes may have meant to evoke Marlon Brando in Apocalypse; he was Kurtz looking out at the world and his reasons for refusing to condescend to ask for votes, to taken on the role of suppliant had also to do with an appalled horror at the world he lived in, his own values somehow, not just patrician disgust. (In Tinker Tailor Colin Firth also channeled as they say Brando, but as in The Godfather.) So Shakespeare’s basically conservative message was altered to fit our era, especially perhaps this year, say since 9/14/08, the real year the world changed: when Lehman Bros came near default and the economic and political systems we endure began to be laid bare before us. If there was some music from Apocalyse Now I didn’t hear it. The film had sequences of no-music in the background a lot.
I haven’t seen Vanessa Redgrave in so great a part, one worthy, giving room for abilities in years. (The Merchant-Ivories didn’t.) It’s hard for older women to find great parts. If possible, she was even better than Fiennes. Utterly plausible. Not some scold, not a domineering termagant, but sure of herself with her son. The best scene in the movie was a longish one of her rubbing his really woundered body all over with her hands, binding his wounds with gauze, all around his body, his arms lovingly, as he places himself intimately within the folds of her body. This is followed by a silent one of him lying looking in pain but resting in bed, with Virginia (Jessica Chastain) coming up to him, and gingerly lying down alongside him. This actress does seem to have been chosen because she looks like young actresses all do recently: super-skinny yet large breasted, curvy thickish lips, a jutting kind of face: the way Julia Roberts looked when young, and Cate Blanchet is attempting to keep up nowadays. Chastain can weep, look as if she’d like to escape all this, and has a scene gathering her boys’ toys — naturally a plastic sub-machine gun and other implements of death by his bed. Redgrave (bless her), like Emma Thompson, has not gone super-thin; she still has her regal body, smooth if aging face. Her smiles gave me the creeps, but I think she is not blamed for what happens. One danger of this play is it may be read simply as see what mothers do. No. Fiennes was his own man, the product that belongs to the world around him.
The scene all will remember is the one from which this promotional (and therefore decorous) still I found on line (above) is taken:
Scene mostly from Act 5, Sc 2, lines 23-190: Fiennes as Coriolanus, Redgrave as Volumnia, Gerard Butler soft focus, arms folded, as Aufidius
but this framed picture moment is not characteristic of it. Characteristic are medium shots of her pacing back and forth a bit, standing with her daughter-in-law, Virginia (Jessica Chastain), their woman, Valeria, and the son, now kneeling,
now rising, with a couple of individual moments for the boy (given lines not in Shakespeare), and the wife (she comes up to him, tries caresses, tears (the lines are his in the play, abridged):
As we all know the family wins, Volumnia the pyrrhic victor, and thus causes his destruction, though in the film we do not know that until he returns to Aufidius after signing the treaty, and Aufidius works up a rage in Coriolanus (“boy! boy” Aufidius jeers, rightly at Coriolanus), and then orders the men ringed round him to beat and knife Caius Marcius to death, himself, Aufidius, coming in for the last deep thrust as he, Aufidius, appears at the same time to be making love to the by then dying maimed, again bleeding man. The last moment of the film is Fiennes dead, thrown and kicked onto a steel kind of shield, ready for the garbage.
Menenius (Brian Cox, chain-smoking) is pulled from this scene. (He is there in Shakespeare) to give him a separate suppliant moment. Like Alec Guiness and Gary Oldman (as George Smiley), Cox worked wonders of myriad responses by taking off and cleaning his glasses and putting them back on his face.
Menenius is persuaded by the parliamentary men to try to persuade Coriolanus from further destruction of Rome. This gives the film-makers another chance to allow us to watch someone walk across a land- or city-scape at length, bridges, checkpoints, wasteland, to where he is confronted (a repeating scene in the film) by a group of men standing in phalanx form, holding weapons at the ready, grim. A truck or fleet of fancy cars stands ready and the person is driven to the scene where he must beg, negotiate, whatever. (No wonder Coriolanus hates it — and this we are to feel too.) He is broken by Coriolanus adament refusal to recognize he is even there. (This is not filmed — as it would not work to see it; it would show the man to be the “boy” is he accused of being at the film’s end.
Alas, some of his speeches were cut, others re-arranged. You could not really have that long allegory of society as a human body with the people as its stomach; it would not have fitted the created world, rhythms of the speeches at all, but others were lost that have saturnine subtle political meaning. (I’ve wondered at times how was that Coriolanus done in the 1940s in Paris that caused it’s said a riot.) He, like Volumnia, is the one who urges Coriolanus to the marketplace, the reasoner (it seems), moderate even. (I seem to recall one testimony from the Irangate hearings where someone said “there are no moderates” [in Reagan's or was it Iran's gov't?].) Probably what’s brought in here is the heartbreak of Cassius when Brutus rejects him. Menenius’s world is smashed as Rome is now smashed. Whatever happens now he is personally a loser too. He kills himself by slitting his wrist veins sitting over a filthy dump near a bridge over waters that look polluted.
Most of the other roles were small, not demanding much. Characters as reporters, as heads of gov’t, as important people in the mob — though there I felt there was something of the spirit of the presentation of mobs in say the 1939 Tale of Two Cities. The people are hungry for bread, have no jobs, but they are so easily swayed (as in Shakespeare’s play). They are often played by non-white people, Middle Eastern, Southasian, Spanish looking: Lubna Azabal as Tamora, and Ashraf Baroum as Cassius given names. It takes little to move them to feel for Caius Marcius, and then so little for the two tribunes (Paul Jesson, James Nesbitt) “of the people” to rouse their envy, fear, spite, resentment. I noted the brief presence of a favorite actress (of mine) from recent BBC film adaptations as an anchor woman (Tanya Moodie).
As important was the text (sometimes cleverly moved around by the screenplay writer, John Logan) and settings and costumes. Much of Shakespeare’s central speeches survived, the central plot-design; it’s Shakespeare’s play all right. A transposition (faithful) film. Brilliantly updated. The scenes are are contemporary world of harsh ruthless military dictatorships and parliaments filled with corrupt — utterly out for themselves — insinuating skilful manipulating suited men. The war-torn streets with steel and cement huge buildings in cement cities, and gorgeous mansions set in green landscapes, along side cardboard towns, brick tenements, wretched deteriorating streets, ancient dilapidated stores, tent markets, everywhere at a sudden flowing with people, many wretched, dressed in modern style rags — I thought perhaps we were seeing the streets of the middle east (say Syria, Egypt today, Yemen) or more closely South and Latin America as we used to see them on TV after some decent gov’t was overthrown by a civil war (fomented in part by the US), but Jim thought they were generic. At any rate many were shown to us as if we were watching them on TV film, a news show, with a voice broadcasting at us, and a band of letters underneath.
As with the destruction of the OWS movement, each time there is a confrontation — most of these occur in the first phase of the film, the police come out in full steel paramilitary riot gear and beat the hell out of the people; we see these cage barbed-wire walls set up that have to be broken through; the debris in the streets from last time is what people stumble over.
Street battles: civilians the “collateral damage”
Much of the action that is reported in Shakespeare’s play (by messenger type speeches) is acted out in front of us. Coriolanus, Aufidius, most of the fighting men are seen in camouflage most of the time. For ceremonies Jim says the costume designed resorted to British ceremonial mititary gear for the soldiers, of course suits for politicians.
All this is significant; it breaks with conventions; to some the opening terrifically violent sequence, and the controlled violence which punctuates the latter 3/4s of the film might detract. It’s hard to watch. Really up close shooting people through the head. But I think it matters and it was right to put before this world seen on TV or Youtubes and read about on the Net by its mostly white middle class audience I saw the film with — people living in or not far from an expensive area of DC, calm peaceful areas (so it seems) of Virginia and Maryland who had come by bus and train and walking.
I hope the film reaches far more people, for the film targets people of many types and countries. I don’t make a habit of seeing Shakespeare film adaptations so don’t know how it fits in to this sub-genre recently, but I do go, watch them on TV, through Netflix, certainly go to the theaters in my area and used to go in NYC most of the time a Shakespeare play was staged, and I have read Coriolanus a couple of times. Jim & I saw the RSC perform it as Kennedy Center a few years ago where Timothy West delivered a extraordinary — memorable — performance as Menenius. Izzy reminds me we 3 saw an abridged version at the DC fringe festival two years ago – but I have only vague memories. Still, this is the best Shakespearean film adaptation I’ve seen in a long time because like Shakespeare it speaks home to us today.
As Marlowe said (Shakespeare grieved at the death of this gifted man),
blood streams through the firmament not since 9/11/01 (that was retaliation) but maybe more patently and obviously, inflicted on its immediate early US audience’s own streets since 9/14/08.
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