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Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Fiennes as Coriolanus - a touch of Anthony Hopkins?

More views of - or after - Cambridge Film Festival 2011
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

8 February

* Contains spoilers *

I did like the conception of where this film geographically and historically placed Rome and Antium, and I missed noticing who the person credited with screenwriting is, but which I now know was Ralph Fiennes' co-producer, John Logan. Those credits also made me aware that Fiennes had directed.

Leaving aside this notional carve-up between director and screenwriter as to who crafts what we see, since Logan and Fiennes were clearly in this together up to the hilt - a bit, maybe, like Aufidius and Martius - I really did feel that using news reporting (with a wonderful cameo and lovely verse-delivery by Jon Snow) and a modern setting didn't harm Shakespeare at all. He, like Bach, is a pretty tough bird, and, if it's done with love, it'll - probably - work.

As to this play, over the years I have engaged with it a few times, and - as I have remarked elsewhere - caught a young(ish) Toby Stephens in the role under the RSC at Stratford. Slippery though it is, I probably haven't locked horns with it since - and there is, which may have drawn Fiennes / Logan to it, a quality of otherness about the play, and about its title character, that is more like the so-called late Beethoven string quartets, if King Lear is a sort of Winterreise of the soul.

And yet, there, there is a connection, because I was struck, this time, how like Cordelia Coriolanus is: in Lear because, loosely quoting, Cordelia will not heave her heart into her mouth, the division of the kingdom proceeds, but proceeds all wrong, because Lear - who should know how much she loves him - is vain enough to want her to say so before everybody. An impossible stand-off, just as, with Coriolanus, his refusal to demean himself to fawn before the people leads to his banishment and joining with the Volscian forces against Rome. (So Cordelia and her husband's forces against those of Goneril and Reagan under their husbands.)

As with all of Shakespeare, he had his sources for this story (and I want to research them), but it was, with Lear, a given of his source that Cordelia cannot speak to secure her 'more opulent' share (I quote from memory) - it is not 'will not', but cannot: she is almost literally choked by the hypocrisy of his sisters in this absurd set-piece that Lear has arranged for her to fail at, though, if he looked into his heart, he would know that she loves him best.

All of this is so close to unlocking Coriolanus, and yet so far. It is not so much his mother's crazy upbinging - what happened to his father? it may be in the full text - as this constitutional inability to pander to people, to represent what is not as what is. Tragic weakness if you like, but he cannot do it, any more than Cordelia can, and he - for all his warlike strategy - plays straight into the hands of his enemies in politics (with both a big and small 'p').

As to whether Fiennes, with his deliberately - it seemed - restrained affect for the soldier when not in the height of battle (urging his men on to bloody, noble and glorious victory), but in the first key scene, before the grain stores, where she speaks so chillingly calmly to the mob - has caught the right note, others may judge differently. For me, though, there was too much a sinister air of Hannibal Lecter, or of Fiennes' recent role as Lord Voldemort, in that rather inward reading of the verse - beautiful, but too much with psycopathic undertones, which I honestly do not believe are there in the original.

Yes, Martius is a man torn in his allegiances, but who looks, most of all, to valour and honour (his mother's incalcation), not to killing or the thirst for blood for their own sake (however much we are reminded, again vividly in this film, of the opening scenes of Macbeth, and of Macbeth himself as some bloody slaughtering priest, blind to his own safety in service of his king and is foes - Macbeth, too, has a heart and conscience, and has to be mightily persuaded by his wife to kill Duncan, and that under their own roof).

So, I felt, that Fiennes' overlayering of an awkward man, ill at ease with social situations, with the icy qualities of speaking up to the other side in a stand-off and keeping his calm when an exlosive utterance of the lines could have been just as possible, just did not gel, except in the psycopathic personality, which I do not think is that of the real Coriolanus. He struggles to do what he believes in, consistent with his own limitations, but has only the awareness of what to do on the battlefield, not on the political field of human life.

Too much has been said about Fiennes' characterization, and something should be said of that of Gerard Butler as Aufidius, whose character's role has to run only the gamut from admiration to hatred to (in this version) a clearly homoerotic compassion for Coriolanus to envy and revenge, but which he ran nicely and smoothly enough, giving Fiennes the space to do what he needed to flesh out his notion of his own figure. Ultimately, nothing falls by that doubt about whether Fiennes has pitched Coriolanus the man right, and much could have been weaker if Butler, Brian Cox (Menenius), and James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson (as tribunes Sicinius and Brutus) had not been so reliably strong.

They gave the film the space to live, but the real honour must go to Redgrave for the half-mad Volumnia, who has had a part in making her son what he is - a man whose passions and whose dignity she can only half understand, but ultimately call on.

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