Thursday, April 5, 2012

When in Rome

Modern-dress Shakespeare is a chancy affair. As often as it is successful, like Julie Taymor's ancient-modern mashup Titus, it can be just as often gimmicky (certain aspects of the Baz Luhrmann Romeo+Juliet) or a bloody mess (the Australian gangland Macbeth is one of the worst filmed Shakespeare adaptations I've ever seen and most definitely my worst-ever blind buy). As with every other directorial decision, displacing time needs to be justified: why should this text of 400 years of age be re-set in modern times? What does it have to say to us today? Titus worked so well because it took an obscure and sort of crappy play and turned it into a meditation on humanity's timeless penchant for violence. Ralph Fiennes' take on Coriolanus, another lesser-known Roman piece, albeit one much higher in quality, is quite happily a success: more than an exercise in cleverness, it makes the Renaissance writing and the classical conflicts viscerally immediate.

Our story takes place in "a place calling itself Rome," besieged from without by the Volsces, led by Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), and within, by grain shortages that have the people rioting. Caius Marcius (Fiennes), one of Rome's most decorated soldiers, spurns the rioters and their objections, and then proceeds to drive the Volsces from their city of Corioli, for which he is rechristened Coriolanus. His mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) convinces him to run for consul in spite of his contempt for popular rule, but two scheming tribunes, Sicinius (James Nesbitt) and Brutus (Paul Jesson), goad him into denouncing the masses, leading to his exile to Volsces territory, where he offers himself to Aufidius to lead a revenge campaign against Rome.

That's an awful lot of story to recap, but really I'm just scratching the surface. The Roman plays are Shakespeare's most politically-minded, and Coriolanus is thematically one of his richest, with its rival strains of democratic and elitist thought. Alas, this is chiefly why the play remains relatively unknown. Marcius has the distinction of being one Shakespeare's most opaque tragic heroes; he has only one soliloquy, here expunged, and so the audience's opinion of him is based entirely around his heated and often contemptuous interactions with other characters. His disgust with the plebians is a hard sell in a modern democracy, and is counter-balanced by the populace itself--fickle, ungrateful to its military protector, and easily manipulated by unscrupulous politicians.

It's not an easy piece, but Fiennes has confidence in it and takes it in fascinating directions. Whereas the original historical context of the story is the very early days of the Roman republic, shortly after the expulsion of the Tarquin kings, the Rome of the film is an apocalyptic, bombed-out urban shell that everywhere seems to be coming apart at the seams; had they referred to it as 'Athens,' the opening scenes could barely be considered fiction. DP Barry Ackroyd of the Bourne trilogy and The Hurt Locker, films the proceedings in his now trademark rough-hewn handheld camerawork, giving the movie an even grittier edge. All this is grounded further with the occasional BBC-style news report that serves the additional functions of condensing the text and easily communicating story developments. Occasionally the modern approach falters, like with a political-debate scene on a Sunday morning talk-show style set whose audience consists of the same couple dozen protesters we saw earlier. But by and large world is very well-realized.

At the center of it it stands Fiennes' Marcius, battle-scarred and bald-shaven. He lives to fight, if not with enemy soldiers then with his own people, and is patently unsuited for the political life that is expected of him. He is the end product of a society that has been at war so long that the violence has taken on a life of its own. The character is not likable per se, but neither is he trying to be. He is proud, but not boastful, and part of his antipathy towards the rabble is a refusal to pander to and flatter them. As a protagonist Marcius has his limitations, but Fiennes gives him as much seething life as can be imagined.

The performers that surround Fiennes, which also include Brian Cox as the sympathetic senator Menenius and Jessica Chastain as Marcius' wife Virgilia, are uniformly strong. The Jacobean English never sounds forced or out of place, which really is tremendous praise. Ultimately, however, the movie belongs to Fiennes, Butler, and Redgrave. Butler is capable, but Aufidius isn't Shakespeare's most nuanced villain by a long shot; he is basically a mirror image of Marcius. What makes their dynamic so interesting is its barely-veiled homosexual subtext. Their close-quarters dueling at the beginning and end of the movie is an erotic death dance, given ample support by the text itself:

O Marcius, Marcius!
Each word thou hast spoke hath weeded from my heart
A root of ancient envy. If Jupiter
Should from yond cloud speak divine things,
And say 'Tis true,' I'ld not believe them more
Than thee, all noble Marcius. Let me twine
Mine arms about that body, where against
My grained ash an hundred times hath broke
And scarr'd the moon with splinters: here I clip
The anvil of my sword, and do contest
As hotly and as nobly with thy love
As ever in ambitious strength I did
Contend against thy valour. Know thou first,
I loved the maid I married; never man
Sigh'd truer breath; but that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing! more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold.

This in turn is mirrored in the Oedipal shadings of Redgrave's performance. Her Volumnia worships her son but is also virtually the only character that can successfully challenge his headstrong stubbornness. She does so while occasionally donning a decidedly unfeminine military officer uniform. All of this working in tandem conveys a brutalizing masculinity that is driving the world over the edge. As Volumnia sniffs,

"Anger's my meat; I sup upon myself,
And so shall starve with feeding."


That is basically what happens in the end. Marcius is a born fighter, and in true tragic fashion what dooms him is his betrayal of this nature, by relenting to his mother's pleas to halt the invasion of Rome. This isn't communicated as clearly as it could be, and in fact the ending is slightly altered. In the original play Aufidius whips the Volscian people into a frenzy against Marcius, who "kill'd my son.' 'My daughter.' ' cousin Marcus.' ' father,'" and who in turn refuses to abide an insult to his pride. In the movie it is merely the Volscian army that gangs up on him, and the ending speeches are jettisoned in favor of a final bloody embrace with Aufidius and the discarding of Marcius' corpse.

Aside from that admitted nitpick, however, and a few cut speeches that I missed (there's a exchange in the beginning of the play talking about the revolt against Marcius as the body's revolt against the belly; it's great writing, but probably would have slowed the action down too much), this is probably the best adaption of Coriolanus that could be hoped for, and one of the better filmed Shakespeares, period. It makes the original material extraordinarily relevant to the current zeitgeist, but without ever condescending to to work or the audience. Time, is on its side.

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