Children Of Men in iambic pentameter: Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus (2011) on Blu-ray & DVD
Fiennes delivers Shakespeare with the gloves off – no crowd-pleasing prestige, just raw psychology and jittery combat. No holds Bard.
(Ralph Fiennes, 2011)
When did it become the norm for cinema to avoid doing Shakespeare as a period piece and tart it up with fancy-pants style? Was it as long ago as Forbidden Planet’s sci-fi version of The Tempest? Or more recently, when Baz Luhrmann’s MTV re-imagining of Romeo + Juliet raised the bar? Whenever it was, it means that Coriolanus – a play with a stronger sense of time and place than many in the Bard’s canon – cannot be confined to Rome but instead exists in a Balkanised state of modern warfare. It’s Children Of Men in iambic pentameter.
The idea should be old-hat by now, but it pays dividends here because Coriolanus isn’t quite like other Shakespeare plays. It’s a coruscating study of power and pride, whose single-mindedness avoids obvious Bard trademarks like comic choruses or soliloquies in favour of flinty political satire and the remorseless inquisition of the playwright’s less empathetic tragic figure.
This lends the story an ambiguity that suits modern dress, a cut-and-thrust complexity whose oscillating sympathies rhyme with the topsy-turvy nature of civil war. And by setting in the here and now, it becomes an apt metaphor for an age of austerity and the Arab Spring, with its people rioting for grain and contemptuous of pampered cocooned authorities lording it up…. Similarly, Shakespeare’s withering vision of the malleable mob mentality, ever ready to condemn at speed only to change their minds a moment later, should be familiar to anyone who uses Twitter.
Ralph Fiennes shows enormous understanding of these issues, in a film as coldly focused as the star/director’s on-screen persona. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been done before: Luhrmann pioneered the use of TV footage for backstory, and the whole thing has the same vibe as Ian McKellen’s oft-forgotten take on Richard III as 1930s Fascist. But John Logan’s adaptation teases out striking symbolism in its battle between suited politicians and the uniformed Coriolanus, and the cinematography by Barry Ackroyd (fresh off The Hurt Locker and Green Zone) retains enough fidgety menace to reinvigorate Shakespeare’s lengthy verbal stand-offs with the same whip pans and reportage close-ups as the combat scenes. It falters only in the obvious budgetary limitations of the crowd scenes, where no amount of impressively ravaged production design can hide the fact that the mob comprises two dozen extras offering theatrical growls of discontent.
Crucially, though, the focus is on the power-play, and those striking parallels and ironies between war, politics and family that topple Coriolanus from his superior perch. While other characters slip effortlessly from one sphere to the next – Vanessa Redgrave is mother-as-warrior-queen, Brian Cox an avuncular statesman –the one guy who can’t hack it is Coriolanus himself. Throughout, he is stiff and haughty, so disdainful of the plebeian rabble he won’t even accept their compliments. From Amon Goeth to Voldemort, Fiennes has never worried about being liked and he is suitably imperious here.
As a director, Fiennes conjures characteristically wonderful performances from Cox and Redgrave, but also a revelatory one from Gerard Butler as a thinking-man’s warrior that shows untapped potential beyond 300’s shouty, sweaty bollocks. And, in one of the least likely casting successes of recent times, Fiennes spots a Shakespearian in Jon Snow’s debonair, dramatic handling of Channel 4 news and so makes him the film’s news anchor, reading the headlines in blank verse like a natural. RSC, hire this man.
Coriolanus is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 4th June.