Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Grown From Man to Dragon

I wonder what it is about Shakespeare that makes actors want to be directors. Olivier and Branagh are the famous ones, but now here we have Ralph Fiennes mounting Coriolanus (2011) with himself in the lead. The play itself is one of The Bard's more stylized late plays, written after the great tragedies and so far as anyone can determine, never performed in Shakespeare's lifetime. It has one of Shakespeare's more opaque heroes, too. Caius Martius Coriolanus is not the bottomless well one finds in Hamlet. He's more a symbol than a character, as if Shakespeare, having redefined the tragic hero, decided it would be more interesting to portray the tragic hero as a calamity to those around him. This is something that Fiennes as a director "gets." I'm not entirely comfortable with the way it modernizes the play. It's still a Roman play. It doesn't change that. It rather sets itself in "a place calling itself Rome," a place that resembles the Balkans, actually. Whatever that place is, it's a multi-ethnic locale. A cosmopolis of the mind, if you will. I like that this gives Fiennes the license to cast multiple people of color in his movie, given that short of Othello or Aaron (in Titus Andronicus), there's not usually much of an excuse. I'm less enthusiastic about the action filmmaking here, which is indistinguishable from most other action filmmaking these days. But I'm becoming philosophical about this.

The story follows war hero Caius Martius, a man who despises the common people he serves because they have no belly for struggle or war. He turns them aside at the beginning of the film when, having stormed the city's granaries, they're blocked by the army. Martius might as well be turning them aside with his withering scorn. This incurs the bitter enmity of First Citizen Tamora and Second Citizen Cassius, who are leading the uprising. In truth, they were already enemies, but Martius gives them reason to hate. Meanwhile, the Volscians have invaded the provinces. Martius is dispatched to stem the invasion, and engages the enemy in the city of Corioles. It's here that Martius encounters his bitterest rival, the Volscian leader, Auphidius. They've met before. Each meeting has left scars. This is not a fatal meeting. The battle goes to the Romans, though, and Martius returns to Rome in triumph, where he is made Consul. Unfortunately for him, his political enemies plot to turn the people of Rome against him. These are the weasley polititians Brutus and Sicinus, both tribunes. Martius's sole ally is the third tribune, Menenius, who can do nothing to prevent his friend's disgrace. Exiled, Martius goes to the only place where he can be of use, to the camp of Auphidius, where he offers to be killed or to be a weapon against Rome. Auphidius chooses the latter, and Martius leads the Volscians to the gates of Rome itself. Only the pleas of his mother and wife stand between his vengeance and Rome.

By the time Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus, he had pretty much demolished the Aristotelian "rules" for tragedy, so it's interesting to see him writing a late play that's so drenched in tradition. Caius Martius is a classic example of a tragic hero. His tragic flaw is pride. This is writ large in the text itself. Martius is also a type from earlier plays. He is mostly inarticulate--as much as a character speaking in iambic pentameter can be inarticulate, I guess--and is mostly action. There's a subtle theme running through Shakespeare that suggests that soaring rhetoric fails in the real world. His most effective king, for instance, is the warrior king, Henry V, while the least effective is the metaphysical poet, Richard II. Martius is closer to Henry, or, more accurately, Othello, who was similarly brutish in his speech. The most eloquent character in the play is Menenius, who turns out to be totally impotent to prevent both Martius's fall and to turn him aside in his vengeance. He ends up a suicide in the traditional Roman way.

But then, maybe I'm wrong about Martius's tragic flaw. Maybe it's NOT pride, because it's not pride that causes his fall in the end. It's compassion. He heeds his mother, Volumnia, and his wife, Virgilia, and his son when they stand between Martius and the ruin of Rome. Auphidius, very much Martius's twin brother in this play, views this as a betrayal and kills him, but kills him as if he were a jilted lover. The relationship between Martius and Auphidius is almost a romance, it should be noted, but they're doppelgangers, too. When Martius greets Auphidius for the first time, he says: "I'll fight with none but thee, for I do hate thee."Auphidius replies: "We hate alike." I admire the hell out of that economy of expression. What more needs to be said? Later, they meet like lovers. Aufidius:

"Let me twine
Mine arms about that body, where against
My grained ash an hundred times hath broke
And scarr'd the moon with splinters: here I clip
The anvil of my sword, and do contest
As hotly and as nobly with thy love
As ever in ambitious strength I did
Contend against thy valour."

It's a really queer play, actually.

The movie dispenses with the weird stylization of the play, with its citizens acting as a Greek chorus. This is especially true of the end, which while keeping the essential events of the play, changes their circumstances dramatically. In its place, Fiennes has substituted the grit of contemporary British cinema. It's not a bad substitution, but it's equally stylized.

Ralph Fiennes makes a crucial...well, decision, I guess, in casting this movie. I don't think it's a mistake, necessarily, given the way the character of Caius Martius functions in the story. Anyway, he casts better actors than himself in key supporting roles, and I find this odd. Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, and (surprisingly) Gerard Butler all burn more brightly than Fiennes himself. This is surprising, given that Fiennes used to be one of the most watchable actors in the world. I don't know what happened as he aged. Did he lose himself in playing Voldermort? Whatever the reason, he seems to have lost some of his movie-star charisma, and toward the end of the movie seems like a poor man's Brando (Meesta Kurtz, he dead). Both Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox know something about holding on to movie star charisma; both of them command the screen when they're on it, regardless of who else is there. Their scenes together are a pleasure to watch. Gerard Butler's interesting career has seen him play Dracula, Attila the Hun, The Phantom of the Opera, Leonidas I, and Beowulf, so I shouldn't be surprised to see him in Shakespeare, and doing well besides. Still, after a brief flirtation with Hollywood stardom, it's nice to see him going back to actual acting. His Auphidius is a more than worthy foil to Fiennes's Martius, and whenever he's on screen, he's the object of the camera's adoration. I wonder if all of this is deliberate. I mean, this is obviously a vanity production. One doesn't mount a production of Shakespeare, cast oneself in the title role, and direct the thing ones self without some measure of ego and self-aggrandizement. But it's a curious choice of play and of casting, because, as I say, Martius is one of Shakespeare's most opaque heroes. He really is a force of nature. "...grown from man to dragon," as Menenius says. He's a disaster, and the other characters measure themselves against him. So maybe they're supposed to outshine Fiennes. If that's true, then he accomplishes it with a flourish. And, by the gods, Vanessa Redgrave is good in her final scene. That scene is worth the price of admission alone.

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