Coriolanus is confronted by his mother, wife and son.

The new film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, directed by Ralph Fiennes, offers up a jolt of modern day movie testosterone, while staying true to the original, brilliant play written in the early 17th century.

With all of the dialogue spoken in Shakespearean English, but the setting so completely in the here and now, you’d think it would take a lot more getting used to than it actually does. (Declaration of bias here: I love Shakespeare and may not be in the majority of movie-goers, judging by the number of people who walked out in the first half of the film screening I attended).

The movie opens with food riots in Rome, where rioters clash with police as trucks are delivering goods to the rich and powerful (the 1%?) while the citizenry goes hungry (the 99%?). This is where we are first introduced to Caius Martius Coriolanus (Fiennes at his scariest, which is saying a lot, given his past roles). He emerges from the line of police officers, shields raised against the mob, looking scarred and ominous. I kept waiting for him to whip out a can of pepper spray! With those piercing eyes so vacuous and vicious, he derides the “curs” for even daring to suggest they deserve food, given that he and others of his ilk have so courageously been defending Rome in battle and otherwise.

Go get you home, you fragments (Coriolanus to the crowd, spittle flying out of his mouth to great effect)

This is not a man who cares much about personal popularity and as we are next shown, his bloodthirsty desire to conquer his enemies in battle is his great obsession. Well, maybe his second greatest obsession, his first being to please his mother (played by Vanessa Redgrave with such vigour and derangement that it might give you nightmares). Yes, there are some extremely uncomfortable Oedipal scenes suggesting an unhealthy relationship between mother and son.  Even Coriolanus’ wife feels like she has to back out of the room when encountering the two of them together, mom tenderly bandaging his wounds. Wife Virgilia (played by the lovely Jessica Chastain) retreats to tend to their small son perhaps feeling just a little left out of the equation. Creepy.

Speaking the language

As the story moves into the battle scenes, the historical language seems less of a barrier, given the timeless nature of war. Not much has changed in that regard–the same killing and maiming whether in the 17th century or the 21st. The importance of leadership when going into battle and the clearly demented nature of Coriolanus’ love of fighting are punctuated here with lots of bloodletting, gun play and explosions to satisfy our love of special effects.

On a side note, I found the use of the hand-held camera during much of the film to be a bit nauseating and distracting. The battle scenes and subsequent crowd scenes often switch to hand-held. A little less of this would have been just as effective and a lot less dizzying.

Bromance or Brokeback Mountain?

It is during the battle scene that we are introduced to Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler **dreamy sigh**), Coriolanus’ mortal enemy. Personally, I think there is a somewhat homoerotic subtext to the relationship between the two men as depicted in this film. But then again, my friends suggested to me that it is more an innocent bromance rather than an all-out Brokeback Mountain-thing. Nevertheless, (SPOILER ALERT) there’s no doubt in my mind that as the two mortal enemies join forces later, which leads to the ultimate betrayal by Aufidius, the final scene is the most lovingly delivered stabbing I’ve ever seen. Butler gives a strong performance as Aufidius and forgive me a little swooning but that guy could make you want to be stabbed (tsk, tsk, get  your minds out of the gutter).

My favourite scene in the entire movie is when Coriolanus appears in a live television studio session (some sort of open mic session) where he needs to win over the audience in order to be appointed to a government leadership role. He already has the endorsement of the elite, but he now needs to placate the crowd in order to avoid “banishment from Rome” (the adaptation to modern times is a little weak here). He’s already been prepped by his mother to not reveal his true feelings, but to win them over with words–true or not. Alas, it is not in his nature to lie as he is a man of impulse and emotion. As the crowd chants and challenges him, he loses his cool, reveals his true contempt for “the people” and walks out, not only on the audience, but on his family and his beloved Rome.

With the many months of live Republican presidential debates, many of them stacked with supporters sometimes jeering and shouting, this scene resonated with me. It seems like our political discourse has not changed much over the centuries. Shakespearean language or not, he captures the mood of today’s televised political debates almost perfectly with this scene.

Populism is fickle

As I mentioned earlier, this film is not for everyone, judging by the number of people fleeing the theatre at the screening I attended. It has been critically acclaimed so far, but the reaction from audiences has been a little less enthusiastic (although the Rotten Tomatoes audience rating is over 60% favourable). The monologues require an intense concentration and there are a lot of extreme close-ups, somewhat exaggerated characterizations and abrupt changes in allegiance that might be a little confounding (and yet, it does speak to the fickle nature of populism).

Political junkies will enjoy this movie, I think and, of course, Shakespeare buffs. Given the fast-moving and unsteady camera work (some might find it overly distracting) it might be a little less jarring at home on the television screen. In the comfort of your own home you could also pause and rewind when necessary if the language becomes difficult to follow (or just to appreciate the richness of the verse!).

I know that it may seem trite to suggest that everyone should be exposed to a little of the Bard’s insight but this comment by Robert Graves really sums it up for me: “The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good – in spite of all the people who say he is very good.”


2 thoughts on “Film review: Consider Coriolanus from the comfort of your couch

  1. My knowledge of Shakespeare is rather basic so I know nothing about this particular play other than the bits and pieces I’ve picked up from the reviews of the film. This is a great review though and has given me a few things to look out for when I finally get around to seeing this, I was particularly interested in your observations on the mother/son relationship.

    1. Thanks for taking time to read the review. Let me know what you think when you see the movie. There are a few scenes with mother-son that are so touching and yet, disturbing. The directing and acting is extremely well done.

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