Thursday, May 16, 2013
Roman general Caius Martius (Fiennes) is blamed by the general population for hardship in the city resulting from war between Rome and Volsci. The Volscian Army is led by Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), who Martius has fought many times, and in their latest battle, Martius captures the city of Corioles. Dubbed Coriolanus for his victory and courage, Martius is encouraged to run for consul within the senate, much to the dismay of two tribunes, Brutus (Paul Jesson) and Sicinius (James Nesbitt). Manipulated into publically displaying his contempt for the common people and the idea of popular rule, Martius is exiled and deemed a traitor. With nowhere else to turn, he goes to his hated enemy Aufidius, and the two plan to attack Rome. When the pleas of a senator, Menenius (Brian Cox), fail to dissuade Martius, his wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) and mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) go to reason with him.
Even without having previously read the play or seen any other adaptation, I found the plot of Coriolanus familiar. The political backstabbing and manipulation of public opinion is reminiscent of Julius Caesar; the warfare, violence, and revenge bare a resemblance to Titus Andronicus; and the Roman setting was previously used in both.
Richard III. In that film, the classic usurper was envisioned as a Nazi-like fascist dictator, and the setting changed to a pre-World War II environment. In Coriolanus, the story is modernized to a decidedly post-9/11, post-Iraq War world. Important speeches and exposition are transmitted via the 24-hour broadcast media, the plebeians have their iPhones out to capture video of footage of riots, the soldiers carry M-16s and AK-47s like they're going door-to-door in Baghdad, and civil uprisings are quelled by police officers with tear gas, shields, and batons. One TV image reveals that Martius has suspended civil liberties. This is a tragedy for the age of no privacy.
That lack of privacy might be why Martius is perhaps the least introspective of Shakespeare's protagonist. Hamlet, MacBeth, King Lear, and so many others got these beautiful soliloquies and monologues that really delved inside their minds and souls and showed how they saw themselves and how they saw the world. With Coriolanus, what you see is what you get: a good soldier with an elitist attitude and disdain for mincing his words. He says what he feels, and that lack of tact gets him into trouble. Anything he says is available for broadcast and dissemination and can be used against him. One minute, you're a hero, and the next, you're a villain.
Thematically, this keeps the movie more relevant with modern times, but at the same time, it makes Coriolanus the character rather flat. He's a flawed individual whose consistency and sense of honor are admirable, but there's little emotional resonance to his downfall (though he is granted one moment of humanity near the end). It's hard to feel for a guy whose joy in life is fighting and who dislikes common people, and he doesn't really change.
Coriolanus plays like a modern action thriller. It's fast paced and exciting and has some stellar performances. Fiennes demonstrates a fair degree of talent behind the camera that matches his skills in front of it, but he also illustrates how the Bard can also play well with modern audiences and resonate, even if the tragedy isn't felt.