Friday, December 16, 2011
The theory that the United States is poised to fall like the Roman empire, and for pretty much the same reasons, is hardly new, but it’s rarely been presented more compellingly than in Ralph Fiennes’ X-treme Shakespeare version of Coriolanus.
In an impressive directorial debut, the actor transposes the classical Rome of Shakespeare’s play to an ashy, underlit modern-day Europe (the film was shot in Bosnia), packing the screen with all the markers of modern warfare and civil unrest. Brutal battles between Rome and its Volscian neighbors feature Humvees and RPGs, shot-up cars with slaughtered civilians spilling out of their half-open doors, and terrified prisoners in dank torture chambers. Meanwhile, hordes of Romans take to the street at home like so many 99 percenters, protesting the hoarding of goods by a thin slice of the oligarchy while the rest of the people starve.
The jackbooted-est of the jackbooted soldiers straining to impose order on both fronts is Fiennes’ General Caius Martius, who earns the nickname Coriolanus after he wastes the Volscian town of Corioles. A lot of people have been drawing parallels between Coriolanus and Fiennes’ Lord Voldemort, the reptilian evil genius of the Harry Potter movies, but he reminds me more of Harry, the Cockney crime lord Fiennes played in In Bruges. Like Harry, Coriolanus is a too-tightly-wrapped package of contradictions: a coldblooded killer who prides himself on living by a strict code of honor and a leader of men who cedes control of his own home to a woman.
Contemptuous of compromise and too proud to beg, Coriolanus runs into trouble when he’s nominated as Rome’s consul. He must be approved by the citizens of Rome in order to take office, but the people distrust him, reading his stiff-necked pride as elitist arrogance. His high-minded appeal to their best instincts wins him the wary approval of the crowd that gathers in the town square to judge him, but a pair of smooth-tongued tribunes quickly turns the crowd into a mob, manipulating them into calling for his banishment instead. As we head into the final months of our interminable presidential campaign season, the ease with which the tribunes subvert democracy by distorting or denying the truth feels as painfully familiar as the war scenes.
Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan use TV newscasters, news crawls, and commentators to convey the kinds of expository details Shakespeare sometimes had to run a couple minor characters onstage to gossip about. The bard’s iambs sound a little stiff in some of the talking heads’ mouths, but the excellent main characters all make the lines sing. Fiennes’ ferocious readings flow around and over Brian Cox’s self-satisfied oratory as Menenius, the oily senator who champions him; Jessica Chastain’s timid concern as his wife; and Vanessa Redgrave’s imperious belligerence as his mother, who rules the roost in the Martius house like one of those screaming eagles that swoop in over the credits at the start of The Colbert Report. And Gerald Butler, after spending years as the beefcake in bad testosterone-fests like 300 and even worse romantic comedies like The Bounty Hunter and The Ugly Truth, gets his shot at the big leagues and hits it out of the park as Aufidius, the straight-arrow Volscian general who alternates between being Coriolanus’ archenemy and his comrade in arms.
Fiennes and his crew obviously worked hard to translate the story to cinematic language. Many of the fight scenes are shot in the abstracted, climax-to-climax style filmmaker Matthias Stork calls “chaos cinema,” with the blurry camera work, quick cuts, and contempt for continuity that have become increasingly popular in the last few years. That style makes it hard to know what’s going on from one moment to the next, but many of the visuals clarify something about key characters or themes, as when Coriolanus’ wife walks in on his mother binding his war wounds and then backs away from their intimidating intimacy, or when the blue eyes blazing in Coriolanus’ blackened, blood-streaked face in the midst of a gory battle clearly signal his love of warfare.
But it’s not so much the booby-trapped buses or blazing baby blues as it is the precise, poetic, often explosive language of the original play that makes this tragedy about toxic mother love, ruthless imperialism, and cynical demagoguery so powerful. What Menenius says of its title character, after he vows revenge on the city that betrayed him, is true of the play as well: “This Martius has gone from man to dragon. He’s more than a creeping thing.”
Written for TimeOff