You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate as reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize as the dead carcases of unburied men that do corrupt my air, I banish you!
I’m here at the West End Cinema that styles itself as “art house.” This week, art house is particularly violent with Coriolanus (2011), Rampart (2011), and Bullhead (2011) showing. This is possibly the smallest venue I’ve ever paid to enter. I imagine this is what a screening room is like. In the not too distant future, flat screen TVs will be bigger. But that’ll be on the high end. I guess I should be happy there is a place that shows these films at all–I saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) in Chicago and thought about a weekend jaunt to NYC to see this movie. It’s nice that this theater exists in DC.
Not a lot of youngsters in this crowd. But I guess I’m not really a youngster anymore. Still, I’m the youngest. If I waited until the 7:00 showing, I would have be out-younged by at least five people, but I went at 4:50. Ah, but the spoils of fate, that the time be better if I wait.
I’ll be trying to ape Shakespeare throughout, but let my fault in manner tend only to herald my love as much as weakness.
If you don’t know the story of Coriolanus, then you certainly don’t know it any better from the trailer.
Caius Martius (later titled Coriolanus) (Ralph Fiennes) is a general in the Roman military. He is not well loved by the people because he seems to despise them. There is a food shortage and many associate the draconian measures it inspires with Martius. Introduce: a cabal of unhappy peasants. Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), of the Volscians, is starting trouble and he’s got a history with Martius–as a rebel would with his enemy’s great general. Martius is a bad ass and does major damage to the Volsci all by himself.
He comes home a hero and is given the name of Coriolanus. His mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), and Menenius (Brian Cox) wants him to be consul. So he does that, but some politicians (James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson) turn the public against him. His proud indignation gets the best of him and he is banished. He heads to Antium (home of the Volsci) to offer his services in destroying Rome (or they can just kill him). Aufidius takes the former choice feeling that Coriolanus is a great man to subject himself as he does. Not sure why, but ancient values are what they are.
Together, they head to Rome, but the Volsci think of Coriolanus like a god and Aufidius doesn’t like that.
With Shakespeare, usually, his stories are inferior to his expression and characterization. Here, the ratio is reversed. The story is strong but the expression and characterization relies entirely on the actors. In some ways, I like this because it allows for the kind of adaptation that Fiennes is doing here–something raw and dismal. Shakespeare didn’t really do silence, in my experience, but this story allows that kind of room. That also accounts for a deficiency.
While Butler gets some material to condone such behavior, it isn’t much. And that’s Shaksespeare’s fault. Here you have the makings of a brilliant character. He’s envious, he’s a warrior and leader, he takes on Coriolanus like a victory in itself and yet he has no soliloquy, his expression is opaque, his story undeveloped. I’m rather surprised at this. This guy made Iago and Edmund. He let this one go.
Butler, bless him, tries his little Scottish heart out to do the Shakespearean whisper. You know what I mean. Where a paragraph-sized line is desperately whispered (so as to express emotion) and ends with that piercing stare that searches the void for answers to a human problem. He tends to lean on this technique to his detriment. There are just so many times that you can do this before I worry about your health.
Coriolanus himself, however, is better expressed by old Shakey than Fiennes. Ralph shouts eagerly and often, sometimes when it isn’t called for then, like the whisper, goes on for too long. If only Butler shared his whispers in equal value with Ralph’s shouts. Sadly, Butler rarely has cause to shout. Pity. I bet he’s a great shouter.
As a film, then.
Fiennes, who directs, adapts Coriolanus to a modern setting–that means guns, TV news, cell phone cameras, and political spin. To the latter, the play is an astoundingly good fit and makes the whole venture worth doing. The film has been marketed as an action thriller, but it’s also in large part a political drama. The cell business has the dank flavor of gimmick and should have been minimized. The way it is, it undermines the kind of nifty realism it’s going for.
As for the story line, I’m going to blame the TV news motif for the serious deficiencies of the first third of the film. Perspective bounces around like mad. This is acceptable in a play where scenes are clean and clear, but the TV brings any scene into any other. So, when we’re setting the stage–so to speak–there’s just too much happening. Is Martius a dictator? It certainly feels like it. Jump. Now he’s in battle. Jump. Now we’re home and mom’s words–slide–are echoed back on the battlefield–ick. That needed focusing. That’s John Logan fault (though I complimented him very highly previously).
There is a sense, I think, that action has to start as soon as possible in a movie. But dude, it’s Shakespeare, the audience will bear with you long enough to clarify and develop the story. You aren’t going to win over the plebs by rolling tanks.
Some words on the Shakespearean dialogue.
It’s suitability to an Irish tongue is, in illness, second only to the Scot’s. Nesbitt is a good actor and he makes it work despite itself–but barely. Butler doesn’t really get the benefit of the doubt. His acting style is more natural and charming and, thus, not what anyone would call technical. So, inevitably, he gets a hard look. The performance doesn’t withstand the scrutiny.
Butler and Nesbitt, as representatives of their people, need a different cadence. If you’ve ever seen or heard a decent presentation of Shakespeare, which will be by British actors (or Mel Gibson), you’ll know that rythm. It’s like a newsreader’s in its formula. It’s difficult to write it out, but you know what I mean.
Can it be understood? Mostly. The problem with Shakespeare goes beyond its occasional Yodaism. It is almost insufferably ponderous to the ear in its metaphoring. That’s why reading it is so much easier (and appreciable). The metaphors goes from one to the next like a hungry lion, who, when spotting its quarry, doth pounce from here to there biting one, maulting another, quenching his bloodthirst until the plains be barren. A hummingbird, from lily to peony, flutters and skips with–you get the idea. It takes some serious concentration to hold on and then let go and know what’s even being talked about.
Coriolanus, despite (or because of) its lack of soliloquy, is less troublesome in some ways. But it depends on what you listen for. I love the soliloquies of villains and Hamlet for their profundity or characterization, so here, I just watch the performances and pick up a neat phrasing here or there without much thought of complexity. If you’re the kind of weirdo that must know every syllable, then this will be no different from any other Shakespeare play.
But if you’re like me and are a hybrid that will hate what is held to be great and like what is held to be base, but trust the canon no less for disagreeing, then you’ll give this a try. You accept that if it’s Shakespeare, it must have some value, even if the value is in exhausting the catalog.
If you’re that kind of philistine that hides their boorishness in the glowing wrap of “taste” and opinion entitlement that we all are apparently endowed with, then I have nothing for you. You face the handicap of inertia. So many books, so many movies, and no way to prejudge them, so you can never choose but randomly. Why are you reading a review? Go, make up your opinions out of whole cloth and take pride in that hideous crazy-quilt of garbage theories. Keep it to yourself.
Anyway. I like Shakespeare. It’s like a great accent. I just want to talk in it for hours.