A frequent ambition of cinema, theatre and opera directors is to make centuries-old material “relevant” to a modern audience by moving it to a different age. The results can be confusing: recently, for example, I sat through an opera originally set in 17th-century Scotland in which some elements of the period had been retained (kilts, swords, feuds) but were now played out in a Victorian villa steam-heated by big fat radiators. Why? The only explanation must be directorial whim. Equally I was never sure why Richard Loncraine’s film version of “Richard III” (1995) exchanged the 15th century for the 1930s, but at least the effect was charming and showed off lots of spectacular architecture that was then rather neglected, including Battersea Power Station and London University’s Senate House, while Ian McKellen’s malevolent king played with his model trains on the empty floors of the St Pancras station hotel.
With “Coriolanus”, Ralph Fiennes makes a much more cogent case for this kind of transposition. In his first film as a director, Fiennes swaps Republican Rome (or Shakespeare’s idea of it) for a troubled country in the present or near future. The real location is Belgrade, though no nation is specified in the film, which comes no closer in its specifics than “a city known as Rome”—as if it could just as easily be called something else, a city for Everyman. The landscape looks familiar though. It has slums mired in rubbish, angry crowds and vicious armies knocking lumps off its buildings and each other with automatic weapons—a country, in other words, that could be Afghanistan or Libya or perhaps our own some day, once global warming has parched southern Europe and sent populations north to grab stocks of water, wheat and potatoes. The outcome depends on warriors—the fighting classes—and civilians have turned the best of them into heroes. Coriolanus (Fiennes) and his implacable enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) belong to Plutarch’s stories of ancient Rome, but in 2011 you could find their wannabe successors on the tailgates of pick-up trucks, letting off a few rounds at the Libyan sky.
The modern setting preserves both the plot and spirit of the play, while making for some awkward moments in the detail. To have Channel 4’s Jon Snow appear as a TV newsreader wasn’t a happy idea—at my screening the audience laughed—and when Shakespearean verse is set against machinegun fire, it sounds like a quill pen competing with a keyboard. In general, however, this is a persuasive reimagining of the play. More brilliant films have been inspired by Shakespeare, including two by the great Akira Kurosawa that were based very loosely on “Macbeth” and “King Lear”, but I can’t think of any that have remained so faithful to the text while so radically refreshing its surroundings. This isn’t entirely a surprise. As a tragedy, “Coriolanus” has unusual amounts of action, much of it brutal, and very little reflection by way of soliloquy. The conflicts never stop: the plebeian crowd detest their patrician rulers and the generals distrust the politicians, while Coriolanus himself has no sooner defeated the Volscians at the front than he is struggling to satisfy his cold-blooded mother’s ambitions at home. Modern cinema, so quick to be excited by confrontation, seems like the story’s natural home.
And yet a doubt persists: how “relevant” can this Shakespeare play be made to the present? Coriolanus’s tragedy begins after his return as a victorious general, when his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and his mentor (Brian Cox) want to capitalise on his military success by turning him into a politician as consul to the Senate. Coriolanus succumbs to their idea, but won’t play the part that political success requires. He won’t flatter the rabble he despises, won’t woo them, refuses to dissemble. His political opponents—two consummate performances by James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson—will of course do all these things and more. They know how to play the crowd, when to make it angry and when to please it, and naturally they win. We’re familiar with this depiction of politics as a tactical game played out by self-seeking hypocrites; physically at least, Jesson’s Brutus reminded me of Tony Blair’s smooth legal chum, Lord (Charlie) Falconer. It’s Coriolanus who is the unfamiliar figure in the film, the protagonist who tests our understanding and forfeits our sympathy because there is so very little in him to like.
His virtues are physical bravery and honesty: he’ll fight to kill and he’ll tell the truth. Beyond this austere and adamantine core, nothing matters to him. He holds the people he fights for in contempt and no streak of kindness inflects his pride and arrogance. Insulted, he prepares to destroy the city that insulted him. Until his last moments, he fails as a human being. Why he is as he is remains a mystery; even his chilly and manipulative mother, the likeliest reason on offer, has more connection to a kinder world.
Fiennes has made a fine film, and given a powerful performance, but at the end we can’t mourn Coriolanus. The culprit—if that’s the word—is Shakespeare.
Coriolanus opens in America and Canada, January 13th; Britain, January 20th; Russia, January 26th; Australia, February 23rd