The Cole Porter song “Brush up on Your Shakespeare” has the great line, “If she says your behaviour is heinous/Kick her in the Coriolanus.” In Ralph Fiennes’ film adaptation of the Bard’s tragedy, pretty much everybody gets a kick in the Coriolanus – and with reason. It’s a dazzling film, and a timely warning. By RICHARD POPLAK
Glabrous of head, dead of eye, Ralph Fiennes’ sneering, slobbering Coriolanus is a textbook example of the Shakespearean tragic flaw. We first meet him as he faces off against a rioting group of his fellow Romans. His men have beaten the mob back with batons and sprayed them with water cannons, but Coriolanus (properly Caius Martius; the play’s title is a nod to his mother’s aspirations) is fearless, contemptuous. His nostrils twitch, as if the stench of the common man turns his stomach. A professional warrior, Coriolanus hates those for whom he must fight. The rabble make him sick. Camera phones in the air recording him, he calms the mob down with thin bromides, and lives to fight another day.
And fight he does. We next encounter him leading a small squad of armed soldiers into a cracked-up neighbourhood that makes us think of the Balkans. We have nothing to go on by way of hard information – the place is Antium in name only – but the impression is formed by the modern weaponry, the broken people in third-hand denim, the crushing grey of the sky. Flat-screen televisions crow about Coriolanus’s coming battle with the hated Aufidius, played by Gerard Butler, with incredible sympathy. Streaked with blood, Aufidius and Coriolanus fight almost to the death, until a mortar round breaks up their grapple, or their embrace, depending on how you see these things.
Set either in the not-so-distant past or the not-so-distant future, Fiennes’ Coriolanus is faithful to its source material. There are, of course, excisions and elisions, courtesy of veteran screenwriter John Logan, but the film is effortlessly contemporary. It takes no time at all to get used to men in flack jackets and AKs speaking Shakespearean English, and less time to understand that the play hasn’t dated but a minute – which is either another testament to the Bard’s genius, or an indictment of the human species. Or both.
In this version, streamlined and shorn of all fat, Coriolanus returns from battle, his ambitious mother Volumnia determined to have him installed as consul. The warrior isn’t interested in showing off his wounds or speaking of his victories; he’s even less interested in asking the people for their permission to join the Senate. The anti-democrat’s anti-democrat, Coriolanus sees the people as an absurdity. Real power is earned through violence. You do not coerce, you batter. No one consents to be ruled – they are either the vanquished, or the enemy. To Coriolanus, power is a zero-sum game. The people of Rome “like peace nor war.” They are “the many-headed multitude,” which suggests a hydra, a monster. His parting words are not conciliatory:
You common cry of curs!
whose breath I hate
As reek o' the rotten fens,
whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air,
– I banish you.
Fired up by two scheming politicians, the mob denies Coriolanus his consulship, and he is exiled from Rome, leaving his wife (played, by the unspeakably beautiful Jessica Chastain, with great economy) and boy behind. When he presents himself to his blood enemy Aufidius, and promises to take Rome alongside him, his fate his written in stone. His default setting is to make war; war is about to unmake him. His shaved head now a sign of a burgeoning cult – the thuggish young men in his charge apparently share his stylist – and Coriolanus becomes your garden-variety fascist. The descent is as heartbreaking as it is precipitous. His mission statement, like the filigree of scars on his face, doesn’t leave much to the imagination. “Let me have war, say I; it exceeds peace as far as day does night; it's spritely, waking, audible, and full of vent. Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy: mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war's a destroyer of men.”
Ralph Fiennes and his cinematographer, Barry Akroyd (who has worked with political filmmaker Ken Loach and shot the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker) perfectly conjure up the micro-universe of a failed state. Anyone who plies the developed world for a living will note the leafy capital, all Ionic columns and late model Mercedes, versus the mud tracks and ratty track suits of the outlying areas. The film’s politics are dead-on – the landscape calls to mind Iraq, Serbia, Syria and, um, South Africa.
We are, of course, not quite at the level of Ralph Fiennes’ depiction of Shakespearean Rome. But there is something about Coriolanus’s contempt for the great unwashed that resonates as particularly South African. That was perfectly obvious in the context of the Apartheid regime, and while the ANC are more subtle in keeping at arm’s length “the dissentious rogues…rubbing the poor itch of [their] opinion”, they certainly haven’t shown us much love recently.
Coriolanus hoped to build Rome on war; the ANC hopes to build the ANC on extraction and patronage. While these differences are important, they whittle away to nothing when we understand that they end at the same place: contempt for the rabble. Coriolanus turns his back on his people, on his family, on his country, all because of his fealty to power. We know how that ends: badly for the powerful, worse for the people. DM
Photo: Ralph Fiennes in Coriolanus