Coriolanus (1605/8): William Shakespeare

Coriolanus: William Shakespeare

(directed by Ralph Fiennes, 2011)

This was one of the many films I missed in the cinema, but I remember the critical acclaim that greeted its release in the UK last year. Last night I finally settled down to watch it; and what a treat it was. Fiennes’s directorial debut brings the action right up to date, telling the story with handheld cameras and news reports alongside more traditional techniques (the British newsreader Jon Snow has a cameo as the Fidelis TV presenter). Almost without exception, the excellent cast handle Shakespeare’s language with such ease that it feels almost like normal speech, and the story is presented with such clarity that (not knowing this play at all), I was completely gripped.

Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes) is Rome’s foremost general: capable, devoted to his country, and fiercely proud of his integrity. And yet the people hate him. Unlike the politicians and popular leaders, Martius has no interest in wooing the common people: on the contrary, he refuses to demean himself by winning their favour through flattery and platitudes. In a city plagued with grain shortages, where martial law has been proclaimed and popular unrest seethes under the surface, Martius is the figure of hate: the people’s scapegoat. However, when the Romans’ belligerent neighbours, the Volsci, take advantage of the city’s unrest to launch attacks on the boundaries of Roman territory, Martius is the only person who can lead the army out against them.

In this, his loyalty to his country is given added impetus by a personal vendetta: he and the leader of the Volsci, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), are sworn enemies. As Martius and his men descend on the Volscian city of Corioles, the war turns into a series of skirmishes with hidden snipers, grenades and many losses on both sides. Encountering Aufidius, Martius agrees to risk himself in single combat; it is an inconclusive match, but the Romans have done enough damage to drive back the Volsci. Aufidius retreats and Martius returns to Rome in triumph, lauded and celebrated by the Senate, who shower honours on him and grant him a new name in recognition of his efforts: Coriolanus.

Coriolanus: William Shakespeare

The hero of Corioles: Martius (Ralph Fiennes), centre, with his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) and son

Martius is invited to stand for consul, an honour which requires the formality of approval by the common people, and here his political enemies see a way that he can be undone. While Martius stiffly greets the people and does his best to win their votes, the people’s tribunes, Sicinius (James Nesbitt) and Brutus (Paul Jesson), set forth to sow discontent among their contacts in the city, suggesting that the newly-christened Coriolanus intends to use his consulship to crush popular liberty. Their success is dizzying: in a development that leaves the Senate wrong-footed and alarmed, the people riot and demand Martius’s expulsion from Rome. Faced with a choice between sugaring his words and wheedling his way back into the people’s good graces, or accepting his exile, Martius allows his pride to rule him. He chooses exile and, furious at the city which has rejected him despite all his service, he chooses the path which will best serve to show Rome how foolish she has been. He sets out to join Aufidius.

Fiennes is extremely good (much better than in The Tempest), conveying the pride and honour of an old soldier who sees no reason why he must suddenly start grovelling to those he protects. One advantage of updating Coriolanus to a modern setting is that the role of popular opinion is so profoundly central to today’s culture. By forcing this awkward, self-contained man through the horror of talk-show appearances and public adulation, Fiennes suggests the deep discomfort engendered by the ceaseless public gaze – the notion that, once you reach a particular level of success, you become public property and must dance to the people’s tune. Fiennes doesn’t make the setting completely contemporary, but just imagine how easily the story of Coriolanus could unfurl in a world where Twitter allows popular opinion to mushroom from nothing into impassioned rage in a day. It no longer seems incredible that the people can swerve from admiration into baying for blood when gently pushed in that direction by skilful demagogues.


Martius (Ralph Fiennes) and Virgilia (Jessica Chastain)

More unfamiliar to modern sentiment, perhaps, is Martius’ devotion to his mother, the imperious matriarch Volumnia (Vanessa Regrave, on fine form). As Martius and Aufidius march on Rome, it is Volumnia alone who can pierce through Martius’ fury into his soul. This is a scene that frequently appears in Old Master paintings, but I’ve never seen it represented in a way that made me realise, as the film did, the full scale of her abasement before her son. Here you fully understand that, for this dignified, stern woman to kneel to the child she gave birth to, is in itself a powerful appeal. After all, Volumnia has almost always dominated her son’s life: the very image of a Roman matron, she is conscious of her family’s military heritage and determined to encourage her son on to greater things. Indeed, her relationship with Martius entirely overshadows her son’s relationship with his sweet, fragile wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain, luminous as ever).

I was interested to see how Gerard Butler coped with the role of Aufidius and was actually very impressed, although the success of his part depended less on his lines and more on his physical presence. He and Fiennes played off very well against each other as the old enemies whose hatred for one another is actually founded upon envy, and whose admiration for one another runs so deeply that they will allow no one else the honour of killing the other. And even joining forces doesn’t end their rivalry, because Aufidius grows troubled to see how his men are progressively turning to Martius as their leader, rather than himself. As the army comes closer to Rome, and closer to Martius’ revenge, the story builds into a simmering climax of jealousy, ambition and vengeance that can only end in tragedy.

Although I’m usually a big fan of seeing Shakespeare in historically-appropriate dress, this is one of the exceptions that proves the rule. Fiennes has taken a gripping and timeless story and told it in a visceral, lively and powerful way that kept me on the edge of my seat, despite never having seen or read the play before. It’s austere and deadly serious – I’m not sure there’s actually a laugh to be had in the entire film – but it’s a masterclass in how to adapt Shakespeare for a modern audience, and it’s going to linger with me for a long time.

Buy the film

Coriolanus: William Shakespeare

Aufidius (Gerard Butler) and Martius (Ralph Fiennes)

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