Coriolanus – Art 3/5 Ent 2/5 Worth 4/5
A good Shakespeare picture one just cannot make these days, even if helmed by some of the finest Shakespearean actors like Kenneth Branagh or now Ralph Fiennes in this selection from one of my favorite subjects in the Bard’s First Folio, if not altogether one of my favorite of his tragedies. Coriolanus, like Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra, came to Shakespeare from Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans, translated into English by Sir Thomas North. The wisdom of Shakespeare’s verse is competing with the Platonic philosophy of Plutarch for much of this play. The final scene in Fiennes’ movie has the imprimatur of a very ancient national principle all over it. With his body flung about like a slaughtered pig after his self-regarding perfidy sent him first to defect from Rome to her enemies the Volscians, winding up a nationless traitor after the entreaties of his family to not dishonor their name drove him back to Rome as the world’s first flip flopping Patrician with a summer home in Martha’s Vinyard. Finally he’s pork ribs for the birds on the ground.
That very classically idea of nation and honor is not completely alive by the time of Shakespeare, making Coriolanus quite anachronistic to those early audiences, and he wouldn’t be current til some centuries after. It’s no wonder then, that Coriolanus is deeply favored by fascists and T.S. Eliot. Even among the Greco-Roman people of antiquity, Coriolanus is identified as being misplaced from the rigidly tyrannical Roman Kingdom period, which was itself pre-Revolutionary, antediluvian to both those living in the Republic and those pretentiously enjoying ‘freedom’ in the early Imperial period. So Coriolanus is interestingly an anti-democratic ogre and antivillain both to the Roman people and the original readers of Plutarch and even to us ostensible democrats today. Caius Martius, later given the cognomen “Coriolanus” for his victory over the Volscian city Corioles, by comparing the rabble rousing plebeians to crows pecking at eagles has an explicit similarity to Burt Lancester’s Don Fabrizio harrumphing over the republican revolutionaries in Risorgimento Italy in The Leopard. “We were the Leopards, the Lions, those who’ll take our place will be little jackals, hyenas”. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Fiennes is a good actor, very good. He has the ability to subordinate everything in his typical nature to a creation native to the story. His central flaw, however, will always be the massive glaring hole in his resume: comedy. Now, of course there is no strong connection between comedy and a play like Coriolanus (unless you want to crack the occasion ‘anus’ joke), but comedic ability gives a serious performer better perspective with a humor test. With the audience as a sounding board, comedic actors know when they’re killing or not, whereas actors in tragedies have to rely on reviews or glances at the entranced faces in the front row. Humor makes a rounded actor more conscious of coming off silly or overly so, and establishes a fine boundary in the laugh test, which has no connection to the above humor test. It’s quite contrary actually, as you don’t want to overstep into the audience laughing *at* your trite performance.
Fiennes lack of comedic skills, in other words, can make his dramatic presence clumsy and his gravity unbalanced or overbearing. In short, he takes himself too goddamn seriously. He definitely does not strike gold with this performance, but that isn’t to say he fails completely. In comparison to other Shakespeare plays on film, Fiennes lacks distinction, and is grossly the inferior of another modern militarist Shakespeare performer in Ian McKellen’s wry take on Richard III. Though the overall execution is definitely worth a look if you’re interested in Shakespearean cinema, it being such comes with the obvious caveat that Shakespearean cinema is never truly exciting in any way, shape or form – even when you include urban combat influenced by the Bourne series and Black Hawk Down. Somebody going beast mode in a Renaissance play? Yeah, count me out, broseph. Jessica Chastain and Gerard Butler continue to proliferate their very welcome presence here, and Brian Cox and Vanessa Redgrave are always interesting. Worth a look, with a giant but.