Friday, January 20, 2012

Botching the Bard

Fiennes and Chastain in Coriolanus
Directed by Ralph Fiennes; based on Shakespeare's play
A Weinstein Company release

Modernizing Shakespeare is a time-honored tradition, but it often seems more generic than genuine. The reason that Shakespeare’s plays remain popular is because they remain relevant despite the 400 years separating them from us. So for Ralph Fiennes to take Coriolanus--about a disgraced Roman general who joins the enemy against the city--from its ancient setting to the war-ravaged present is an unfortunate reaction against the complexity of the language and the obscurity of the plot and setting to contemporary audiences.

Shakespeare’s Gaius Marcius, a military man through and through, is a Roman general with little thought--and even less use--for the ordinary people. His first appearance in the play, during a confrontation with rioting Roman citizens who want food from nearby stores of grain, shows his naked contempt for those not in the army; when he soon returns to Rome a hero after successfully fending off the advance of the hated Volscian army and their leader, Aufidius, at the town of Corioles, he’s talked into running for the office of consul by his controlling mother Volumnia and friendly senator Meninius, who has gotten him the honored title of “Coriolanus.”

But Coriolanus is no politician: he is unable to fake compassion for the citizenry, and when he is again confronted by (to his ears) insolent rabble-rousers from the public and the senate, he loses his temper and calls them out, bemoaning that it’s allowed for “crows to peck the eagles.” Needless to say, popular support turns against him and he is banished. In a rage, he offers himself to the Volscians, with whom he joins to attack Rome and gain his revenge.

In Fiennes’ film, ancient Rome has become an unnamed contemporary nation: the atrocities of the Bosnian war are recalled in this production that was shot in Serbia and peopled with Serbian actors in front of the camera and Serbian technicians on the set. It’s no earth-shattering revelation that a play written four centuries ago about a general who lived two thousand years before that is relevant to our tenuous times: history--and art--repeats itself. But trying to make every aspect of Coriolanus recognizable, if not meaningful, to those who would never be caught dead watching, attending or reading Shakespeare--forces Fiennes into a dramatic and thematic corner.

As director, Fiennes makes expressive use of Serbian locations which still bear scars of the murderous warring among political and religious factions. But the use of modern technology--around-the-clock TV news networks show the ongoing battles and help explain who’s who and what’s what for a presumably unfamiliar film audience-- undercuts Shakespeare’s dialogue, notably when Volumnia and Coriolanus’ faithful wife Virgilia waiting desperately for news of him. All they need to do is turn on the TV instead of waiting to hear from Meninius. And when Volumnia later tells Meninius that Coriolanus was wounded but is okay, why wouldn’t he already have known that through the 24/7 news cycle?

Fiennes helms gritty battle sequences in the shaky hand-held style of Full Metal Jacket and Saving Private Ryan, apparently to appease those who might wander in hoping for gory combat. When Coriolanus himself goes from door to door in search of hidden enemies (would a general, no matter how reckless, do such a thing alone?) and vanquishes a surprise attacker, his shiny bald head becomes caked in blood, a visceral image that substitutes Shakespeare’s complexity for mere black-and-white.

But the ultimate clash between Fiennes’ and screenwriter John Logan’s modern sensibility clashes and Shakespeare is the mano-a-mano fight between Coriolanus and Aufidius. Both armies are equipped with automatic weapons with scopes, but when these two men begin their brawl, they put down the modern weaponry and unsheathe glistening knives--which were seen in close-up being sharpened in the film’s opening images--before joining the battle. In another nod to mindless movie violence, they crash through a plate glass window and fall two stories into a dumpster: unbloodied and unbowed (and with no broken bones, apparently), they must be separated by their allies.

Brian Cox (Meninius), Gerard Butler (Aufidius) and Jessica Chastain (Virgilia) make solid contributions, while Vanessa Redgrave takes the scenery-chewing role of Volumnia and turns it into a tour de force more powerful because of her restraint. Fiennes’ Coriolanus, an equally strong screen presence, is able to make us sympathetic toward this fatally prideful man, effortlessly making Shakespeare’s words sound conversational even when confrontational: his spiteful pronunciation of “boy,” spit out at the Volscians before they take their knives to him, leads to a tremendously emotional climax.

But it’s too bad that Fiennes didn’t trust Shakespeare more often: his concerns are still ours, but making them obvious doesn’t make them any more clearer.

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