I’ll readily admit that I don’t know my Coriolanus from my elbow but I suspect I have a glimmer of why it is one of Shakespeare’s less-staged tragedies.
As proficiently mounted as Ralph Fiennes adaptation is, the problem could be down to the title character himself. On some level we need to be able to empathise with Coriolanus (played by Fiennes) in order to be involved with the fate he drives himself towards but, unlike certain of the Bard’s better-known tragic heroes, we are allowed little insight into his psyche. He’s a born and bred warmonger, with no sympathy for the masses (they only deserve grain if they’ve fought for their country) and a level of bravery that borders on sheer bloodthirstiness. His disinterest in courting public approval might be seen as a better side to his nature (an unwillingness to prostitute his beliefs to curry favour) but it could just reflect a prideful temperament; he considers himself better than those he would not condescend towards.
Without soliloquies to expose a more complicated nature, we feel little for him even when those around him conspire to bring about his downfall. Led by a militaristic nature, he is content to remove civil liberties and, provoked to ire, condemn popular rule. It seems the play has been a popular choice during periods of political strife, and certainly one can see the undercurrent of opposing positions (freedom versus restriction) that informs it. The Plebeians propose a more democratic Republic, Coriolanus (a ruling Patrician) a more prescribed one, and Menenius (also a Patrician) sits somewhere in the middle (the status quo).
For the most part, Fiennes decision to furnish his adaptation with a contemporary setting is a successful one. I tend to be slightly dubious of such gimmickry, but ultimately what counts is whether it enhances the telling. As a director, Fiennes’ choices are muscular and cogent. His choice to rely on handheld camera is easy to appreciate, as it lends immediacy and energy to the proceedings.
The problem comes with the self-consciousness of the trappings; the choice of restaging dialogue and commentary as TV coverage (complete with Jon Snow) feels like an over-familiar crutch. Fiennes makes it coherent, but it is the most obvious of possible choices. And that’s my general take-away; he works hard to make his film gritty and powerful and he largely succeeds, but his decisions are never truly inspired ones. I would like to see him take on other directing projects, however. There’s a confidence here that deserves to be unleashed on less formal material, where he feels less responsibility to the text.
I’m uncertain if Fiennes directorial choices are to blame, John Logan’s adaptation, or the Shakey himself, but certain crucial moments lack sufficient weight to convey the choices that characters reach. In particular, I had problems buying into Tullus Aufidius’ (Gerard Butler) embrace of his arch blood enemy Coriolanus out of sympathy with his plight. As Fiennes shoots it, Aufidius makes the choice virtually on a whim; maybe this is a point where the modern setting works against timeworn honour codes. Additionally, I was unconvinced by the decisive plea-bargaining of Coriolanus’ mother. Even given the Oedipal undercurrents between the two of them, building to Coriolanus’ change of mind through long, stony silences only underline the impenetrability of the character.
Fiennes has filled out his cast with some interesting players. Butler makes a believably rough and ready Aufidius, while Vanessa Redgrave, as ever, is peerless as Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia. Jessica Chastain doesn’t make an enormous impression as his wife Virgilia, but the main plaudits go to Cox as smooth peacemaker Menenius and James Nesbitt as slippery provocateur Tribune Brutus. Fiennes is a rock-solid centre but, as noted, it is not the most accessible of roles.
Updating the setting of Shakespeare’s plays may work to the advantage of the text, bringing out timeless relevance in the material, or become a distraction, with the danger that the trappings run the engine (of course, you could say the same of revelling in period costumes). Fiennes certainly avoids the latter, but I don’t think he is always able to make the workings of the Roman state sufficiently clear; one might argue that is an acceptable sacrifice as long as one gets the gist, which one does.
In addition, for a play of explicitly political discourse, he seems curiously uninterested in attaching specific meaning to its retelling. The location filming in Serbia may invoke superficial commentary on events there. Yet Fiennes’ only statement appears to be how best to “perform” the play, rather than to overlay /recent current world events over its content. Some reviewers have cited the Arab Spring but this suggests casting about for the kind of markers that have informed past revivals, rather than reflecting the director’s intent.