“Anger’s my meat; I sup upon myself, and so shall starve with feeding.” Thus says Volumnia, Coriolanus’s mother, and in this particular adaptation the immensely powerful and portentous Vanessa Redgrave. The sentiment that “they just don’t write like that anymore” is often trite and ridiculous, but when it comes to Shakespeare it’s pretty accurate. If anything, this makes a cinematic adaptation even more difficult: how do you live up to such brilliant lines and artfully crafted narratives without the end result seeming more buoyed by the Bard himself than any of the filmmaker’s own vision. That’s why so many productions have gone with drastic setting changes, and perhaps why Ralph Fiennes chose to place “Coriolanus” in a dark and almost post-apocalyptic landscape.
The plot is much too complex to go into extraordinary detail, but the gist is this: General Caius Marcius Coriolanus is both military hero and scornful aristocrat, hungry for power but potentially crippled by his blatant distaste for the common people. As he and his advisors attempt an ascent to the consulate, the tribunes and the Roman population get in the way; or in his words, they threaten to “bring in the crows to peck out the eagles.” The entire narrative of the story is one of conflict and confrontation. Coriolanus first must against the Volsci on the field of battle and subsequently conquer the politics of his own city, only to later find himself on a previously unthinkable quest for revenge and violent vindication. The film embraces this darkness and is absolutely dripping with the haughtiness of power and the vicious bite of contempt.
For those of you unfamiliar with the play (as I was before seeing this film), it’s pretty extraordinary in is moral acidity, even for Shakespeare. We usually think of Macbeth as the pinnacle of evil and pure wickedness, yet Coriolanus can take things one step further. There are no magical elements to mitigate the malice, only the bitter realities of politics and war. The general has “no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger.” Fiennes runs with this, both directing and acting his lead role to the absolute ends of a raw and hopelessly arrogant hatred. The fact that he’s so unsympathetic is practically irrelevant, as his charisma so enhances his malevolence. We find ourselves rooting passionately against him, yet simultaneously hoping that he will somehow survive to appear on screen another day.
That is, unless we’re being momentarily distracted by the two real powerhouse performances in the film. Brian Cox and the aforementioned Redgrave are forces of nature, walking a fine Shakespearean line between genuinely human characters and grand representations of thematic ideas. Senator Menenius (Cox) stands over Rome as the very manifestation of the wheels of political power, pushing Coriolanus forward. The performance is boisterous at first but gradually gains real weight until his final confrontation with his protégé seems like a meeting of the gods.
Redgrave is equally magnificent, though in perhaps an earthier manner. As the mother of Coriolanus she has an extraordinary commitment to his accession to the consulate, even if that means breaking and reshaping her own son’s will. Yet she also has a profound set of principles that keep her grounded and within a uniquely patrician morality. Redgrave masterfully manages all of the boldness and complexity, creating an inspired performance that stands out over the rest in the film.
As for the film as a whole, it works. The decision to modernize is mostly successful, and it makes the complex plot easier to follow. John Logan’s screenplay is splendid, arranging it all in a very effective and cinematic way. Yet I can’t help but wonder if it could use a bit more vision, the sort of ambition that made Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare adaptations possible. Perhaps the play’s the thing and Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” itself is best suited to unique cinematic adaptation and marvelous performances rather than grandiose and ground-breaking work. Regardless, I do hope that Fiennes returns to Shakespeare again, and that he brings Cox and Redgrave with him.