Skip to main content

There is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger.


Coriolanus
(2011)

I’ll readily admit that I don’t know my Coriolanus from my elbow but I suspect I have a glimmer of why it is one of Shakespeare’s less-staged tragedies.

As proficiently mounted as Ralph Fiennes adaptation is,  the problem could be down to the title character himself. On some level we need to be able to empathise with Coriolanus (played by Fiennes) in order to be involved with the fate he drives himself towards but, unlike certain of the Bard’s better-known tragic heroes, we are allowed little insight into his psyche. He’s a born and bred warmonger, with no sympathy for the masses (they only deserve grain if they’ve fought for their country) and a level of bravery that borders on sheer bloodthirstiness. His disinterest in courting public approval might be seen as a better side to his nature (an unwillingness to prostitute his beliefs to curry favour) but it could just reflect a prideful temperament; he considers himself better than those he would not condescend towards.

Without soliloquies to expose a more complicated nature, we feel little for him even when those around him conspire to bring about his downfall. Led by a militaristic nature, he is content to remove civil liberties and, provoked to ire, condemn popular rule. It seems the play has been a popular choice during periods of political strife, and certainly one can see the undercurrent of opposing positions (freedom versus restriction) that informs it.  The Plebeians propose a more democratic Republic, Coriolanus (a ruling Patrician) a more prescribed one, and Menenius (also a Patrician) sits somewhere in the middle (the status quo).

For the most part, Fiennes decision to furnish his adaptation with a contemporary setting is a successful one. I tend to be slightly dubious of such gimmickry, but ultimately what counts is whether it enhances the telling. As a director, Fiennes’ choices are muscular and cogent. His choice to rely on handheld camera is easy to appreciate, as it lends immediacy and energy to the proceedings.

The problem comes with the self-consciousness of the trappings; the choice of restaging dialogue and commentary as TV coverage (complete with Jon Snow) feels like an over-familiar crutch. Fiennes makes it coherent, but it is the most obvious of possible choices. And that’s my general take-away; he works hard to make his film gritty and powerful and he largely succeeds, but his decisions are never truly inspired ones. I would like to see him take on other directing projects, however. There’s a confidence here that deserves to be unleashed on l formal material, where he feels less responsibility to the text.

I’m uncertain if Fiennes directorial choices are to blame, John Logan’s adaptation, or the Shakey himself, but certain crucial moments lack sufficient weight to convey the choices that characters reach. In particular, I had problems buying into Tullus Aufidius’ (Gerard Butler) embrace of his arch blood enemy Coriolanus out of sympathy with his plight. As Fiennes shoots it, Aufidius makes the choice virtually on a whim; maybe this is a point where the modern setting works against timeworn honour codes. Additionally, I was unconvinced by the decisive plea-bargaining of Coriolanus’ mother. Even given the Oedipal undercurrents between the two of them, building to Coriolanus’ change of mind through long, stony silences only underlines the impenetrability of the character.

Fiennes has filled out his cast with some interesting players. Butler makes a believably rough and ready Aufidius, while Vanessa Redgrave, as ever, is peerless as Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia. Jessica Chastain doesn’t make an enormous impression as his wife Virgilia, but the main plaudits go to Cox as smooth peacemaker Menenius and James Nesbitt as slippery provocateur Tribune Brutus. Fiennes is a rock-solid centre but, as noted, it is not the most accessible of roles.

Updating the setting of Shakespeare’s plays may work to the advantage of the text, bringing out timeless relevance in the material, or become a distraction, with the danger that the trappings run the engine (of course, you could say the same of revelling in period costumes). Fiennes certainly avoids the latter, but I don’t think he is always able to make the workings of the Roman state sufficiently clear; one might argue that is an acceptable sacrifice as long as one gets the gist, which one does.

In addition, for a play of explicitly political discourse, he seems curiously uninterested in attaching specific meaning to its retelling. The location filming in Serbia may invoke superficial commentary on events there. Yet Fiennes’ only statement appears to be how best to “perform” the play, rather than to overlay /recent current world events over its content. Some reviewers have cited the Arab Spring but this suggests casting about for the kind of markers that have informed past revivals, rather than reflecting the director’s intent.

***1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

The protocol actually says that most Tersies will say this has to be a dream.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)
(SPOILERS) The Wachowski siblings’ wildly patchy career continues apace. They bespoiled a great thing with The Matrix sequels (I liked the first, not the second), misfired with Speed Racer (bubble-gum visuals aside, hijinks and comedy ain’t their forte) and recently delivered the Marmite Sense8 for Netflix (I was somewhere in between on it). Their only slam-dunk since The Matrix put them on the movie map is Cloud Atlas, and even that’s a case of rising above its limitations (mostly prosthetic-based). Jupiter Ascending, their latest cinema outing and first stab at space opera, elevates their lesser works by default, however. It manages to be tone deaf in all the areas that count, and sadly fetches up at the bottom of their filmography pile.

This is a case where the roundly damning verdicts have sadly been largely on the ball. What’s most baffling about the picture is that, after a reasonably engaging set-up, it determinedly bores the pants off you. I haven’t enco…

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979)
Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991)
(SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…