Shakespeare on war & rebellion

<!–[if !mso]> <![endif]–> “Coriolanus,” directed by Ralph Fiennes, from William Shakespeare’s play, screenplay by John Logan. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, and Gerard Butler.

Ralph Fienne’s “Coriolanus,” often billed as Shakespeare’s political tragedy, is set in contemporary times.  Though Shakespeare wrote the play over 400 years ago, its themes of military and state power, familial loyalty, and betrayal resonate today. The film was shot in Belgrade, Serbia, and in Montenegro using hand-held cameras on the desolate exterior scenes, in bleak greys and blues.

It was necessary for screenwriter John Logan to edit some of the speeches, but he did it judiciously. He did not alter Shakespeare’s blank verse in iambic pentameter, which the Bard had perfected in later plays such as “Coriolanus.” Once Shakespeare had mastered traditional blank verse, he began to vary its flow—a technique that released the new power and flexibility of the poetry heard in this film.
Thus Logan’s script gave the actors lines with startling impact, so that they sounded modern, as when one character accuses another of “breaking his oath and resolution like/A twist of rotten silk.” These exchanges come off as if they were written for an incisively worked, contemporary thriller.
The film was so intense and gripping that it didn’t feel like it was almost two-hours long.   
The film opens with a close-up of a knife being sharpened on a whetstone—a hint that it will be employed later on to make a statement, and we are not disappointed. Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes) is the name given to Roman war hero Caius Martius in honor of the city he and his troops conquered from the Volcians. His military rivals were headed by his equal and nemesis, Tullus Audifius, masterfully played by Gerard Butler.  (Butler had suffered a run of disastrous films and romantic comedies; this role redeems him.)
During the battle, Coriolanus ends up with a Volcian soldier’s blood streaking down his shaved head. He continues slashing his enemies, the blood now serving as the mark of a warrior.
Coriolanus is a complex character who shies away from public accolades. Upon his victorious return to Rome, the cunning politician Menenius (noted Shakespearean actor Brian Cox) had arranged a hero’s welcome. Coriolanus disdains giving a speech, much to the dismay of his mother, Volumnia, played to perfection by the great actor and political activist, Vanessa Redgrave, and his wife, Virgilia (Jessica Chastain), who has little to do but stand by her man.
His pre-adolescent son, Young Martius (Harry Fenn), is his father’s clone down to the smart military uniform and wooden sword.
Not everyone is thrilled by his return. He has to face members of his own council who don’t agree with his tyrannical methods as well as mobs of citizen protesters led by Tamara (Lubna Azabal) and Cassius (Ashraf Barhom) who call him out for freezing their grain allocations and cutting back public services. These scenes could have come directly from any of today’s Occupy Movements or Arab Spring protests.
The patrician establishment insists that Coriolanus accept the role of head of state, while his political detractors vehemently oppose him. Reluctantly, Coriolanus accepts the post. The power of the people is such, however, that they succeed in shouting him down, demanding he leave—banished from Rome. Would that such measures could happen here, rather than officials arresting and imprisoning people for expressing their First Amendment rights!
Scenes show the banished Corolianus as a wandering back-pack-wearing homeless person; his only companion is a walking stick. He goes unshaven and grows his hair long, trekking through bleak, wintry villages, seemingly unoccupied except for roaming packs of dogs.
Planning his revenge on Rome and its people, he shows up in Aufidius’s compound. He quickly convinces the Volcian commander to take him on, despite the fact that they are sworn enemies, so together they can conquer the people of the city that banished him.
But the scheme falls apart because Coriolanus is, after all, his mother’s son. He does what she wants: save her people from suffering the horrors of war. That Aufidius has been betrayed doesn’t fare well for Coriolanus. The knife we saw in the opening scene is put to use.
Coriolanus is not one of Shakespeare’s sympathetic heroes. One literary critic refers to him as “an astonishingly cheerless snob, a schoolboy crazed with a particular notion of privilege and possessed of a demented ideal of authority.” He could have been referring to any one of our U.S. presidents and the influential rich and powerful in and out of the military; certainly the arrogant Dick Cheney comes to mind. Especially since Sept. 11, 2001, White House administrations—including the current one—have ramped up their imperialistic goals with little heed to the disastrous effects. But they, like Coriolanus, must confront an increasingly enraged people.
> The article above was written by Gaetana Caldwell-Smith, and first appeared in the April 2012 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.