If you think the 1 percent are bad now, check out Rome in the fifth century BC. “You common cry of curs!” the aristocratic Coriolanus of the Shakespeare play addresses the people of the city, “whose breath I hate / As reek o’th’rotten fens, whose loves I prize / As the dead carcasses of unburied men / That do corrupt my air.” So much for noblesse oblige. The play takes place around 490 BC, when Rome had become a republic but not yet a true democracy, and elections are controlled by rich patricians who court the approval of the hardworking plebeians. Caius Martius—honored with the name Coriolanus after his victory over the neighboring Volscian city of Corioles—is a venerated battlefield commander promoted by the patricians as a civic leader, the David Petraeus of his day. But his contempt for the people turns them against him. After they finger him as a dictator and banish him from Rome, he throws in with the Volscians.
In short, he’s a fink, which is what has always made Coriolanus such a difficult play. “Coriolanus complains of the fickleness of the people,” wrote the British critic William Hazlitt, “yet, the instant he cannot gratify his pride and obstinacy at their expense, he turns his arms against his country.” Shakespeare wrote the play late in his career, around 1608, and no one knows if it was ever performed in his lifetime. Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, the figure on whom it’s based, may not have existed, so Coriolanus is classed among not the histories but the tragedies. T.S. Eliot famously (some would say perversely) proclaimed it Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy—better than Hamlet. George Bernard Shaw, on the other hand, decided the play was not a tragedy at all but “the greatest of Shakespeare’s comedies,” a political satire about a power-hungry leader. An odd duck to be sure, Coriolanus has rarely been staged, though in the last century it’s become popular as a political parable about civilian control of the military.
Laurence Olivier took this approach in 1959 when, producing the play for the British stage, he turned Coriolanus into Mussolini, hanging him by his heels to die in the play’s penultimate scene. Ralph Fiennes more or less follows suit with his new movie version, which screened here last year as part of the Chicago International Film Festival and opens Friday for a commercial run. Shooting in Belgrade, Fiennes embraces the imagery of the 90s civil war in Yugoslavia, with cable-TV video of contemporary urban assaults and even breaking-news captions (“Roman Food Crisis: Senate declares state of emergency”; “Roman Food Crisis: General Martius suspends civil liberties”). Visually and dramatically it works well—it’s Shakespeare by way of Black Hawk Down—but as an allegory of modern-day geopolitics it doesn’t really go anywhere. You wonder what Fiennes might have accomplished had he set the movie in a first-world power like his own United Kingdom—or ours, where the president both opened and closed his last State of the Union speech by holding up the military as a national example.
Coriolanus is a warrior, not a politician, and Shakespeare’s greatest accomplishment in the play may have been capturing that weird interplay of pride, modesty, and alienation that accompanies the warrior into civil life. Certainly, Coriolanus does himself no favors in the opening scene of the movie, when a mob of plebeians has gathered at the gates of the central grain depot. There’s a clash, riot police back them off, then Martius—clad in a black beret and camouflage fatigues—breaks through the line to denounce the rioters. “Who deserves greatness / Deserves your hate,” spits a bald-shaven Fiennes, with his big beak and canine teeth. “With every minute you do change a mind / And call him noble that was now your hate, / Him vile that was your garland.” A big sticking point for Coriolanus is the custom of the day that he parade his battlefield wounds before the people. “You must desire them to think upon you,” advises his friend, the senator Menenius (Brian Cox), as they ride toward a public event in a limousine. “Think upon me?” Coriolanus replies. “Hang ’em! I would they would forget me.”
He has more regard for Aufidius, the Volscian commander, than for his own people. There’s a chilling scene in the movie where the Roman council and military commanders, meeting in some bunker-type room, watch a handheld video of Aufidius (Gerard Butler) interrogating and executing a Roman prisoner. Coriolanus has fought alongside Aufidius before and grandly informs the council, “He is a lion I am proud to hunt.” Nowadays we would probably just take the guy out with a drone, but Fiennes contrives to stage their face-to-face battle from the play, Aufidius’s men standing down in a shattered office building as the two antagonists duel with daggers (in a cool exterior shot, they crash through a plate glass window to the ground, which allows Aufidius to fight another day). After Coriolanus is banished from Rome, he sneaks into Volsces and presents himself to Aufidius, asking for either death or a uniform: “I will fight / Against my cankered country with the spleen / Of all the under fiends.”
The central philosophical question in the play is whether the people can be trusted to govern themselves—Shakespeare doesn’t seem to think so—and Fiennes makes some interesting decisions in transposing it to the present political day. The plebeians here are provoked by a handful of lefty-looking radicals (Lubna Azabal, Ashraf Barhom) and represented before the government by the tribunes, a couple of slick politician types (James Nesbitt, Paul Jesson). Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s loudest and most chaotic plays, and Fiennes has rather ingeniously moved the scene of Coriolanus’s banishment—the midpoint of the story and the high point of the movie—from the Roman marketplace to a brightly colored TV studio with a live audience. “I would not buy / Their mercy at the price of one fair word,” Coriolanus mutters to Menenius as they prepare for this exercise in political theater. When the chanting of the people eventually drives Coriolanus into a sputtering rage, he looks like a reality show contestant getting booed off the program.
Compared with scenes like this, the play’s family concerns never ignite. Vanessa Redgrave contributes a scary performance as the soldier’s aged mother, Volumnia, who wears a dress uniform and beret herself and would love him to die a glorious death. But the workaholic Jessica Chastain (The Debt, Take Shelter, The Tree of Life, The Help, Texas Killing Fields) has trouble connecting with the role of the soldier’s wife, Virgilia; she comes off as a standard-issue military rose, all devotion and worry. Needless to say, Coriolanus—who emerges from his first combat scene drenched in blood—is not really one for the ladies. His tenderest scene comes when Aufidius, welcoming him to the Volscian forces, cups his head and embraces him (it’s not quite as gay as it sounds, but close). Whatever the social or historical context, Coriolanus endures mainly as a portrait of the warrior class, the sort of men who live to fight for their nation but, denied a nation, live just to fight.