Our president, Frances Dharmalingam, recently saw this film, which stars Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler and Brian Cox. Fiennes was also the producer: the screenplay was adapted by John Logan.
It was one of the finest modernizations of a Shakespeare play I have seen, with clever use of technology to further the action – TV broadcasts and Skype in place of clunky “messengers” up-dating the news.
The leading roles were perfectly cast – Coriolanus frozen in his arrogance, Menenius the fatherly figure Coriolanus so obviously needed but didn’t recognise, the two duplicitous tribunes Sicinius and Brutus – and of course Volumnia. What an impressive portrayal! This mother had dominated and moulded her son, and lived out her own ambitions through him. The only major character about whom I had any reservations was Aufidius. His darker, less trustworthy qualities became apparent only at the very last moment.
The crowds were huge and the director achieved a nice balance between the formless, threatening mass of the people and the individual rabble rousers who led the fickle sway of opinion. The scenes of civil unrest and the war episodes displayed the advantage of film over theatre. Where the latter would have to rely on conventional symbols – a few banners, suggestions of crowd action with Noises Off – the film showed us from endlessly varied angles the absolute reality of riots and battles in the 21st century. Of course the weapons were horrifyingly efficient, but the violence of war was as it has always been since before the days of gunfire, while in the house-to-house Search and Destroy missions there were echoes of ageless hand-to-hand combat, and at one point in the early rioting the police moved against the crowd with shields interlocked, suggestive of the old Roman “tortoise” formation. So for me the uncompromisingly modern interpretation had layers of timelessness, just as the psychology of the characters would have been true in any century.
Although the play does not, in so many words, give details of Coriolanus’s upbringing, the film established the separation between his family and the common folk. Shots of dilapidated buildings, stagnant puddles, piles of refuse and graffiti in the city contrasted with the elegant luxury of his family home, set in a quiet shady garden. Volumnia with her daughter-in-law and grandson, and then with Coriolanus himself, showed her strongly ambitious dominance, and when he capitulated to her pleas to spare Rome one could feel the unbearable tension and the final collapse, when Coriolanus knew that this could lead only to disaster. 'Oh mother, mother, What have you done?' summarised his apprehension of doom. Through the whole film, his facial expressions were extraordinarily limited, and yet he conveyed fierce intensity of feeling. Although never in any way a likeable character, he evoked (from me, anyway) sympathy as he moved inevitably to his fate, unable to change. A particularly memorable moment also was Coriolanus’s response to his sentence of exile. 'There is a world elsewhere' was spoken with all the contempt he had expressed to the citizens and yet it was coloured by a wrenching sense of loss, which made all the more believable his decision eventually to join Rome’s enemies.
This was a superb film in which the direction and the acting combined to bring to vivid life a fascinating play.