Shakespeare in Serbia
Coriolanus, the intractable late Shakespearean play, seems to be performed every few years in England. Even if it’s not one of the bard’s more popular it provides a magnificent, disturbing lead role. It’s been notably performed by Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton, as well as by Ian McKellen, Toby Stephens, Robert Ryan, Christopher Walken, and Morgan Freeman; by lan Howard for the BBC; and by Ralph Fiennes in 2000. In this directing debut Fiennes, Shaven-headed and ugly as he was as Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter, again, 12 years later, plays the harsh, haughty Roman military hero turned enemy of the state in a dark, violent, vividly contemporary version using trashed and devastated setttings in Serbia and sporting modern fascist-looking (and also American desert war-looking) military uniforms. The cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, also shot Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker: enough said? You have to see this, and you may even like it. It’s got one of the UK’s most famous stage and screen actors burning up the screen and for the first time directing the whole thing. Don’t expect a warm and cuddly experience. And don’t look for the visual fantasy of Julie Taymor, but do anticipate a solider sense of Shakespeare’s language. Not maybe of his structure, since the two parts of the play are by their own nature ill-fitting. But as Philip French says in his review in The Observer, “the film is as up to date as today’s news, and indeed it opens as if we’d just switched on the TV to watch the latest bulletin from a state torn by civil strife.”
Shooting in Serbia may be economical, but money was spent. Hence the big fires and explosions in the more martial and violent first part, somewhat overwhelming the lines. I kept wishing Derek Jarman were alive to have made such a film, improvising brilliantly with little money as he usually did. But this is still a skilled and accomplished film. The diffiulty is that this Caius Martius Coriolanus guy is so unappealing and opaque it’s hard to get into and be truly moved by the action.
Fiennes and his collaborators certainly bring out the play’s already self-evident contemporary political elements — the food riot, the brutal quelling of a popular rebellion, the stress on the importance of continual self-promotion by leaders. Fiennes’ performance is ferocious, and he’s well served by his main supporting actors, the superb Brian Cox, the quietly regal Vanessa Redgrave, tha handsome and charismatic Gerard Butler, the suddenly ubiquitous and impressive Jessica Chastain, not to mention the excellent and essential Paul Jesson and James Nesbit as the wily and ever-present tribunes who eventually get Coriolanus exiled; and John Kani as the leading general, Cominius.
At first he’s Caius Martius; Coriolanus is an honorific name bestowed when he defeats the Volscian leader Aufidius (Butler) in hand-to-hand combat so brutal at the end they both look dead. The name refers to a Volscian city. But this comes after Martius has been denounced by tribunes Brutus and Sicinius (Jesson and Nesbitt) for his contemptuous treatment of the revolting masses who protest being deprived of grain (Lubna Azabal of Incendies is notable as one of the citizens): read Mubarak, but this time actually appearing in Tahrir Square. It’s all being photographed on cell phone cameras; surprisingly, Facebook isn’t mentioned. Martius’ subsequent victory over the Volscians in the field leads his mother, Volumnia (Redgrave), to push him to run for consul of Rome and he wins the Senate’s favor for this but not the commoners’.
This is where Martius/Coriolanus is at least faintly appealing, because he refuses to curry favor with the crowd. That must impress us in the wake of months of Republican presidential campaigning. He also refuses to show off his war wounds, though he has two big new scars, which we see Volumnia dressing and bandaging. (These wounds and a long Celtic-looking dagger being honed in the prologue sequence ill fit with the use of the latest automatic weapons in the film: Shakespeare obviously intends sword and knife fighting — one of the signs that the movie’s updates don’t always gibe with the text.)
But Coriolanus’ continuing scorn for the people when Brutus and Sicinius whip up a riot against him is not so appealing. He is a snob, and perhaps a fascist, as he appears when he puts on a dress uniform — his mother and young son also like to dress military. The quiet and reasonable senator Menenius (Cox), who seems the only decent and unselfish person at the top, tries to placate the mob and Coriolanus, but those manipulative tribunes, men in suits who use the media, succeed in getting Coriolanus banished. We see him wandering, a desperate bearded and longhaired vagabond, toward the Volscians, where he does the most self-destructive but backhandedly admirable thing yet: he dares Aufidius to kill him, but offers himself as an ally against his own Roman people.
At this point things become less trendy and more straightforwardly theatrical, though we’re still among Serbians with trash-strewn fields, graffiti-covered walls, and brawny tattooed 300-style brutes from the bad part of Belgrade. Coriolanus, who himself gets a dragon tattooed on the back of his neck, becomes a leader in exile, sitting in an old barber chair, shaved again, and scorning first Menenius (who in this version commits a slow Roman suicide when his peacemaking fails), then his mother, wife, and young son, who bow and beg in vain. Things do not end well for Coriolanus, whose homoerotic new friendship with Aufidius — his blood enemy but perhaps in his eyes his only equal — is doomed.
You walk out stunned. Dr. Johnson described the play as having “too much bustle in the first act, and too little in the last,” and Fiennes’ production only accentuates this disparity and lack of coherence. Nonetheless John Logan (of Gladiator, The Aviator, and the recent stage play Red) has skillfully pared down Shakespeare’s sometimes obscure text and made it comprehensible for moviegoers. If the result is more a collection of disparate units than a coherent film, still the force of the protagonist’s stubbornness in Fiennes’ resolutely blank and terrifying interpretation gives you plenty of food for thought.
DIRECTOR: RALPH FIENNESS
STARS: RALPH FIENNES, GERARD BUTLER, BRIAN COX, VANESSA REDGRAVE, JOHN KANI
RUNTIME: 122 MINS APPROX