Friday, July 19, 2013

Michael5000 vs. Shakespeare at the Movies: Coriolanus (Fiennes, 2011)

The Play: Coriolanus.
Directed by: Ralph Fiennes, 2011.

Ebert: 3 1/2 Stars
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%

Previous Coriolanus on Michael5000 vs. Shakespeare:
Genre & Setting: Shakespeare’s political/military drama is played as a, well, a political/military drama. Locations in Serbia and in Montenegro gave this adaptation an extra dose of gritty sobriety.

If you want a taste of the look and feel of the thing, check out this trailer -- which obscures the fact that the movie is a Shakespeare adaptation, and might have bits that you would have to work at understanding, with hilarious thoroughness.

The Gist, which will obviously involve spoilers: As discussed a few weeks back, Coriolanus is the one about the Roman general who is unbeatable on the battlefield but an abject failure in politics due to his complete inability to court the commoners. Lured into fiasco by his political opponents, he joins with Rome’s enemies and leads an army against the city. Finally, he allows himself to fall into the most abject fate a man could possibly face: being yelled at by his mom in front of the guys.

The Adaptation: This is a modern-dress production of Coriolanus, and by “modern-dress” I don’t mean the sort of thing where the actors dress up like Hapsburgs. No, this is modern in the sense of RIGHT NOW, with up-to-the-decade technology, semiotics of wardrobe and hairstyle, and tactics of urban warfare. I will admit – I think this counts as an admission – that I’m always a little skeptical of attempts to weld Shakespearean language onto present-day scenery. And this is not just because of the fact that, as my brother has observed, with Shakespeare you sometimes just want to see some awesome ruffs, although this is certainly true. Rather, I think I’m afraid that the juxtaposition of 1610s language and 2010s props will come off as unnatural.

In his adaptation of Coriolanus, famous actor but first-time director Ralph Fiennes does a pretty credible job with the modern-dress approach. Indeed, this is a thoughtful adaptation that integrates setting and script to draw out particular themes from the Shakespearean text, and perhaps to smuggle a few new ones in. It’s downright intellectual! Who knew such a movie could still be made?

Here’s a for instance of what I’m talking about. When they see a celebrity or an event that might count as news, the Roman plebeians of Fiennes’ Coriolanus do like us and start taking video with their cell phones. The first time this happened, I thought “How cute, they’re acting all modern.” But as I thought about it some more, it struck me that Coriolanus is in large part about what it is acceptable to say in public, and what it is not. In our day, of course, pretty much any event where two or more are gathered together is “in public,” and the rash, ill-tempered remark that slips out of your mouth at your worst moment is, like Coriolanus’ gaffes, liable to be exposed to the scrutiny and contempt of the masses. Like, on YouTube.

The contemporary setting also allows some innovative solutions to what would otherwise be tricky staging problems. A lot of the dialog in the Coriolanus text is pure exposition, as various citizens and messengers gab about the political and military context in order to bring us up to speed. I confess that when I read the play a few weeks back, I imagined all of these conversations taking place between guys in togas standing among columns, which would not exactly be riveting theater. Fiennes moves a lot of this stuff to a Roman version of CNN, which works great. After all, isn’t a continuous stream of exposition what the pundits and talking heads of news television offer in real life? Some of the Shakespearean dialog works wondrous well as bad TV; of course there’s good acting at work here, plus my home-court advantage of having read the script a few days before, but still.

Another advantage Fiennes grabs from his contemporary setting is the use of very precisely situated stock characters. The plebeians distinguished by Shakespeare as “First Citizen” through “Seventh Citizen” are, in this film, exactly drawn social types who will be instantly recognizable to, to… well, to the kind of people who watch film adaptations of obscure Shakespeare plays. First Citizen and Second Citizen, for instance, are intellectual Marxists, the first male, professorial, world-weary; the second female, combative, carelessly stylish. You will feel you know them immediately, not from life but from a lifetime of movies. The two tribunes who are Coriolanus’ bane are the very image of successful opposition politicos, enjoying the game and the exercise of power, glorying in their ability to manipulate and bend the will of the people, slick with professional charisma but very probably hiding, in their hearts of hearts, a core of real conviction. You know them well as soon as you see them, because they are creatures of our times; whether such people really exist is beside the point.

The very-possibly-historical Coriolanus merits a panel in
Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe. 
The biggest puzzle in staging an adaptation of Coriolanus, I decided when I read it, would be “What do we make of the hero?” Is he a monster, or is he just deeply flawed? An interpretation I hadn’t considered was to make him post-traumatic. Fiennes’ Coriolanus, a soldier who can only escape his torments of fear and anger by returning to the violence of combat from whence they come, is probably not a Coriolanus that Shakespeare would recognize. But that’s all right. It is a psychology for the protagonist that is perfectly compatible with the text. Fiennes tells Shakespeare’s story with reasonable faithfulness – the lines are read, the plot is followed – but he also uses Shakespeare to tell a story of his own, one about the corrosive power of violence on the lives of the soldiers responsible for carrying it out. It’s a little didactic, perhaps, but then the best literature so often is.

Clocks in at: 123 minutes.

Pros: A profusion of talent and clever use of resources conjure a viable, entertaining art film from a budget of peanuts and one of Shakespeare’s less well-known plays. Intelligent reframing in contemporary setting.

Cons: No ruffs. A few scenes that I liked on the page were cut from the screenplay, and the final scene is – heh – violently truncated. …dumbed down? …rendered more emotionally taut? You make the call! Mrs.5000: “Not a great first-date movie.”

Prognosis: Next time you’re in the mood for a pessimistic but stylish political drama with dialog in an archaic form of the language, this film adaptation of Coriolanus is a good choice for you!

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