Brush Up Your Shakespeare

Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut, is a stirring contemporary reading of this lesser known Shakespearean tragedy; a wonderful debut and the first time that Coriolanus has been filmed.  Although we are explicitly in “a place calling itself Rome” filming was in Belgrade where the resonance of blasted buildings, suffering civilians, and marauding military gangs is strongly enhanced. More current still, opposition groups organise themselves and take to the street to protest at the indifference of the ruling elites but are violently suppressed.

Authentic rolling news updates advance the action including a cameo from Jon Snow presenting breaking news in Shakespearean blank verse and overseeing a studio debate complete with vying experts. The climatic banishment scene is staged within a television debate where Coriolanus is undone by his fierce pride and furiously spurns the studio audience: “whose loves I prize as the dead carcasses of unburied men that do corrupt my air: I banish you!” Coriolanus is a famously hard man to care for, and that is exactly as he would want it. In Shakespeare’s text there are few soliloquoys since Coriolanus sees no need to explain himself. Having been raised by his terrifying mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave in an unforgettable performance) to take pride only in crushing military achievements, his contempt for easily swayed plebian mobs who have not served the state is palpable. He is intensely aware of his own hard-fought worth but crucially refuses the customary opportunity to show the people his scars in order to gain their acclamation as Consul. He rejects the modern political necessities of spin and is brought down by the sneaky machinations of the tribunes of the people.

This film encourages us to consider whether we get the political leadership we deserve. If we accept that the powerful will always hold us in contempt but ultimately allow ourselves to be bamboozled by presentation of the message and we collude with elite patricians who cajole then reject those who are honest with us. But it is a complex debate since Coriolanus is not an attractive figure for a modern democrat to laud.

My highest praise is that this is an adaptation that had me rushing home to read the play again; the amazing language was all Shakespeare’s but the director’s choices were key. The reconcilliation scene when, after Coriolanus’ banishment, he seeks out his bitterest enemy Aufidius (Gerard Butler) is played as a deeply sexually-charged encounter between two lovers who have finally understood what has been between them all along. This is underlined by a head-shaving ritual which is replayed as the Volscians march towards Rome fuelled by beer, sessions in the barber’s chair and bass-heavy dancing. Although I should add here that I saw the film with one of the straightest men alive and he didn’t agree with my assessment of this scene, but of course, he is was wrong!

1 Comment

  1. Sue Baker
    Feb 9, 2012

    Thanks Deirdre for such a fascinating review. Coriolanus has long been my favourite Shakespeare play and I’ve held off going to see the film in case of disappointment. Now you’ve convinced me I should go.

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