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Hate, pride and "the deepest malice of the war": Ralph Fiennes 'Coriolanus.

In his 2011 directorial debut, popular actor Ralph Fiennes has brought one of William Shakespeare's less known plays, Coriolanus, to the attention of the great public. The original play, hypothetically written between 1607 and 1608, is the last tragedy before the four romances concluding the playwright's career, and it is not considered usually as part of the "essential canon" that includes works such as Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth. Shakespeare's story is based on Plutarch's ParallelLives, a series of biographies which includes the deeds of Gaius Marcius, a Roman general who helped to conquer the Volscian town of Corioles in 493 BCE and was thenceforth named Coriolanus. After being betrayed by his own people, the general allied with the Volscians and marched against Rome. It was the historical period of the young and immature republic of Rome, which had just freed himself from the domination of the Etruscan kings and had recently suffered from the First Secession in 494 BCE-a dispute between the patrician ruling class and the plebeian underclass whose resolution led to the institution of the Tribunes of the People, magistrates who proposed legislation to the populace (or vetoed it) and provided the people with a direct representation in the senate.

In Fiennes' film, the Shakespearian play is adapted with precision, in spite of the many textual cuts to the original source. Indeed, the script omits more than half of Shakespeare's lines, cutting several dialogues and soliloquies (especially from the fourth act of the play). Nevertheless, as Philip French has noted, "in adapting the play, John Logan (who worked on Gladiator and Scorsese's Howard Hughes biography, The Aviator) has sharply cut the text, removing the obscurer passages but retaining its lucidity and eloquence and providing a sharp, graphic narrative". The cinematic text has maintained all of the play's major themes (such as war, political intrigues, betrayal and family affections), but its main difference from the original source is the transposition of the narrative to the contemporary age. Reconciling the original text with the contemporary historical context could be difficult for some spectators, especially those who are not familiar with the works of the English Bard and their early-modern language. Indeed, majestic and eloquent phrases such as "make you a sword of me" and "each word thou hast spoke hath weeded from my heart a root of ancient envy" do not always fit easily with a representation of a world filled with TV news, panzers, rifles and missiles. The gap between the Elizabethan text and the modern film setting thus seems unbridgeable and confusing sometimes, especially when phrases such as "matrons flung gloves, ladies and maids theirs scarves and hand kerchiefs, upon him as he passed, the nobles bended, as to Jove's statue" use terms, invoke anachronistic deities and evoke images that make no sense in that context. On the other hand, the narrative itself is fluent and believable and the actors' performances are very convincing "in spite of' the remoteness of the language. This demonstrates the universality and timelessness of Shakespeare's language rather than its anachronism. Indeed, one of the main merits of this production is its capacity to show that the contents of Coriolanus are still valid nowadays, when war and deceitful political intrigues plague many areas of our planet as it occurred during both Ancient Roman history and the Elizabethan age.

Furthermore, the modern setting can certainly help the viewer to "accept" more easily the early-modern language of the Bard's verses. After all, as Jack Jorgens recognizes, "in a sense all Shakespeare films are translations" and try "to recast and reimage a work conceived in a different language and for a different culture" (in Hindle xiv-xv). A great number of cinematic adaptations have in fact transposed the characters and the settings (as well as translated the language) of Shakespeare's works to other historical periods, whether it is the original historical context the plays refer back to or a time that follows the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages. These are the cases, respectively, of Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet (1990), which sets the Shakespearean text in Medieval Denmark, and Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (1996), which is instead set in the nineteenth century. Fiennes' transposition of Coriolanus from its 453 BCE historical context to the contemporary age further represents such a continuous translation of the Shakespearean plays to a different time, independently of the morals or the thematic concerns of the original text.

Contrary to many other cinematic adaptations of the English Bard's works, Fiennes' film has only one cinematic precursor, the 1983 BBC Television Shakespeare version directed by Elijah Moshinsky and starring Alan Howard. Moshinsky's and Fiennes 'Coriolanus belong respectively to the theatrical and the realistic mode of filming Shakespeare, according to the rarely-challenged taxonomy established by Jorgens in the 1977 volume Shakespeare on Film. The former reproduces the very static settings, acting style and atmosphere of a theatrical performance of the play. (1) The realistic mode consists instead in the "realization" on the screen of the settings and situations mentioned or alluded to in the script: the images complement and enhance some of the key elements of the sixteenth- or seventeenth-century text through the use of elaborate costumes, set designs and location shoots that generally respect historical accuracy (Jorgens, in Holland 50). (2) As Maurice Hindle argues, the screenplay is therefore "liberated from the confines of the theatre's acting space by cinema's photographic technology" (9). This is particularly true in the case of the Shakespearean stage which, as Lisa Hopkins has noted, "had few props and no scenery, and therefore inevitably depended heavily on the characters' verbal descriptions to inform the audience of where they were and what it looked like" (16). Fiennes' version of Coriolanus sets the characters into realistic locations, provides them with costumes and props that are appropriate to the historical context, and supply viewers with a visual representation that takes the place of the images created in the reader's/spectator's mind by Shakespeare's verses.

On the other hand, we could consider both Moshinsky's and Fiennes 'Coriolanus as belonging also to what Hindle categorizes as the periodising mode, which takes "the story and characters of a Shakespeare play and transport[s] them wholesale into the cultural trappings and social dynamic of a distinctly recognizable historical period" (82). (3) The 1983 Coriolanus transports the characters to an early-modern setting, which (apart from the fights that actually use Ancient Roman weapons and armours) is established by costumes, props and decor of the settings. In this way, the 1983 film periodises the Shakespearean text by depicting a world filled with violence and struggles for power which resembles the early-modern world of political affairs and internal dissensions that inspired The Prince, the 1614 treatise by Niccolo Machiavelli that offers a gruesome and cruel vision of the political intrigues of the times, and often advises monarchs to choose the most violent and bloody courses of action. Fiennes, instead, transposes the narrative to a contemporary urban milieu in which civil war takes place. The film, as critic Philip French argues, has been shot in Serbia and "reek[s] of the recent wars in the former Yugoslavia". However, as French further notes, "for Corioles you might read the Falklands, Afghanistan, Iraq or Chechnya": the production assumes a contemporary historical weight in its depiction of any civil strife and urban war.

This is all the more emphasized by the fundamental weight assigned in this film to the media, especially TV, which are the vehicle for the news and the rumours on the actions and words of the public, the senators and Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes). The speeches of the messengers in the play thus become news on TV through panel discussions "and a genuine British news anchor declaiming iambic pentameters as if from an autocue" (Lane). Moreover, in a suggestion allusive to the power held by the media to present the public with "true" reality, some of the most important events of the narrative (such as the people's decision to banish the protagonist from Rome) occur in front of cameras or are registered by mobile phones. Similarly, the protests of the populace are filtered through the images of a television that depicts a riotous crowd lamenting about the famine. The power, instability and tendency to change opinion very quickly of the populace-who grant their vote for Coriolanus quickly but then revoke it immediately after being easily convinced by the two deceitful and manipulative Tribunes of the People-are constantly emphasized in this film. The plebeians are indeed defined by the protagonist as a dangerous hydra with multiple heads, a particular that is evident in the sequence in which they invoke a death penalty for Coriolanus. Their screams of anger and the confusion of the scene (due to the quick cuts on the unfocused faces of the anonymous people protesting in front of the senate) are exemplary of the same violence that characterizes the scenes of battle between the Romans and the Volscians. Fiennes represents a hysterical mob--worthy of eighteenth-century Gothic novels such as Matthew Lewis' The Monk (1796) and Charles Robert Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)-a mob that is not governed by judicial process or rational reflections.

The story alternates between the streets of "A place calling itself Rome" and Tullus Aufidius's headquarters in Antium, an underground bunker in which the Volscian leader harbours his vindictive and bitter resentment against his old rival. The face of Aufidius'--who is interpreted by Gerard Butler, the unforgettable Count of Patrick Lussier's Dracula 2000 (2000) and King Leonidas in Zack Snyder's 300 (2006)-is perpetually contracted in an expression of hate, which exemplifies perfectly the fact that "of all things upon the Earth he hated [Coriolanus'] person most", as a Roman soldier reports. The hate between the two antagonists becomes one of the constant feelings governing this narrative. The film offers a brilliantly-played version of the scene in which the two mortal enemies meet at Corioles. The sequence is almost frozen in Coriolanus' first glance towards his rival, his blue eyes being evidenced by the blood covering his face. The close ups on the two faces loaded with hate against each other introduce the viewer to a quite realistic duel in which Aufidius and Caius Martius renounce to use their rifles and fight only with a knife while their men and comrades watch and encourage them.

Hate, rivalry and war are the fundamental themes of Coriolanus' narrative. From the very first shot of a hand caressing and then sharpening a knife during the title sequence, the film is heavily invested on the visual metonymic of war. Weapons are often framed in close up and are presented as an extension of the human body. War is portrayed as brutal and tragic: civilian houses are burned down and streets are covered with ruins; both soldiers and civilians are victims of the conflict. This is emphasized by the documentary-style realism of the battle scenes, which is also expressed through the sounds effects (death-dealing thuds from the bullets, the shrieks and groans of the wounded, the fire devastating the civilian dwellings, the explosions of the bombs) that pain the spectators' ears. A gruesome realism is conveyed specifically by the medium shots of the corpses of the civilians covered in blood that lie on the streets, by the close ups on the dirt of the soldiers' uniforms and, particularly, on their glances of terror and indecision on the battlefield. Fiennes generally avoids a subjective shot technique (typical of the films by Oliver Stone and Stanley Kubrick) that conveys the more personal and painful elements of war. In all the scenes dictated by action and violence, dialogue is almost absent and the principal characters and relationships are revealed mainly through the visual narrative. Violence is not aestheticized and the viewer is never immersed in the personal relationships among the soldiers: the director does not want us to identify with their feelings, emotions and anxieties. On the contrary, the camera lingers on the protagonist, evidencing his personal involvement in the battle, his firmness and commitment. In contrast to Laurence Olivier's relatively "clean" style of portraying battle in Henry V (1944), Fiennes depicts the most brutal and dirty aspects of war but, as we shall see now in detail, he seems to glorify the protagonist's personal pride achieved through war rather than the collective efforts of his troops.

Indeed, all the harsh details of the battlefield are dramatically reinforced by the director's focus on Coriolanus. The eyes of the soldiers closed with fear are set against the protagonist's cries of exhortation and of reproach, but also against his grin, his teeth closed with rage when assaulting his enemies. The actions of the Roman general are heroic even if they do not always reproduce the physical fights of the original text, in which strength and values are measured body against body. Fiennes-who played the same role in the theatrical version of the play for the Almeida Theatre in London in 2000-offers an excellent interpretation of the character throughout the film. (4) From the beginning of the story Caius Martius is commanding in his attitude: he wears a military uniform that is as imposing as a Roman armour could have been if the film had been set in the original time of the events. His facial scars are very visible and sign his expression with a violent past that weights continually on the character's conscience. His is therefore a very good epitome of the character's name Martius, which has been changed by Shakespeare from Plutarch's Marcius into a name bearing a closer resemblance to Martes, the Roman god of war. His propensity towards battle is one of the defining characteristics of the character: he is first of all a coarse warrior, prone to battle and physical fights more than to diplomacy.

Indeed, the protagonist's contempt for the populace is barely contained beyond his grim and severe face in the first sequences of the film. We could even wonder whether his hostile glances towards the camera are directed to the viewer as well and, therefore, whether he includes us as the target of his adversity [Image #1]. At the beginning of the story, nevertheless, the protagonist is apparently cold and peaceful. The evident transformation into a heinous and enraged being occurs halfway through the narrative (during the third act of the tragedy) when the general is betrayed into losing his temper in front of the crowd that he then insults abundantly-an action that causes his subsequent banishment from Rome. In this scene Coriolanus reveals his quintessential nature as a military man, who does not understand the mechanics of politics and who does not want to submit to its "rituals" and obligations. Such a trait has been evidenced by critic Nemi D'Agostino, who argues that he is an "ill-tempered, stubborn, annoying 'hero'", whose ruin is his own pride (xxxviii). His harsh and uningratiating character is what leads him to a tragic end; it is the weakness that condemns him from the very beginning of the narrative. Coriolanus does not repent about his harsh temperament, disdains any flattery and refuses to correct his own nature. He loves coherence and constancy in a world that is governed by political reversals and constant change. Exemplary of such an attitude is the sequence in which the Roman general is advised by senator Menenius Agrippa to return to the tribunes and to repent what he has previously spoken, but he declares: "For them? I cannot do it to the gods. Must I then do it for them?" His hatred against the populace and incapacity to compromise are evident here; his pride and fiery temper exceed and suffocate his rationality and generate a conflict between him and all of his friends. In this sense, we cannot but agree with Chris Tookey, who argues that "Shakespeare's attempts to turn him into a tragic hero undone by pride don't work because it's so difficult to empathise with him". (5)

Noteworthy are the interpretations of Brian Cox (who is an excellent Colonel Stryker in Bryan Singer's X-Men 2 [2003]) and Vanessa Redgrave (winner of the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Fred Zinnemann's 1977 Julia). The former interprets the role of Menenius, politician and loyal friend of Coriolanus, who attempts frequently to correct his friend's verbal excesses by intervening with gentleness and calm and by suggesting peremptorily the right course of action in order for Coriolanus to become a consul. The actor's easiness with the Shakespearean verse is as mesmerizing as the rhetorical skills of the character himself. Menenius' demise constitutes however another variation from the original Jacobean text, in which, after attempting unsuccessfully to convince Coriolanus to stop the Volscian campaign against Rome, the senator finally celebrates the enemies' retreat and the safety of Rome. In Fiennes' film, he is instead convinced of Rome's imminent destruction and, after retiring to the banks of an anonymous river, he commits suicide by cutting his veins. The last frame of his corpse lying in the dark is a silent condemnation of those characters who refused to listen to his admonitions, to his measured and wise words.

Vanessa Redgrave is Coriolanus' patriotic mother Volumnia, the Roman elderly matron who has always invested-and confided proudly-in her son's achievements. As Manohla Dargis summarizes, "another she-wolf of Rome, Volumnia has kept count of Coriolanus' wounds (she'd happily lick them), nurturing his fame. But she's done her job too well. Her son has become a war machine". Proud and severe, she is the only person with a real influence on the Roman general, whose determination and firmness collapse in front of her. She utilizes a Machiavellian rhetoric when addressing him, even when merely whispering "I prithee now, my son: go to them, be with them, say to them. Thou art their soldier" in the moment in which she urges him to endure the rituals required for confirmation in the public office of consul. (6) In a very touching sequence near the end of the film, Volumnia begs her son to abandon his plan of revenge against Rome and addresses him with barred eyes and in a commanding way, challenging his pride. When Coriolanus surrenders to her words, kneeling before her and embracing her womb, viewers cannot but share the warrior's change of heart and recognize the power of family affections over the single individual.

From this moment on, the spectators who are familiar with Shakespeare's play wait for the inevitable tragic end, for a malicious glance in Aufidius' eyes indicating his treacherous intentions, and for the accusations of betrayal that fall upon and finally condemn Coriolanus. Aufidius addresses his late ally as Caius Martius in the last lines of the play (and the film) to remind the present Volscians of the heinous role he had in the death of the people of Corioles and urges them to murder him immediately. For those viewers who have never read/watched the tragedy, Aufidius' decision to punish Coriolanus because he "sold the blood and labour of our great action" by stipulating a pact with the city's governors could be experienced as an unexpected and too immediate twist in the plot. However, Aufidius' intentions are evident in his desire to reacquire prestige in the eyes of the Volscians through Coriolanus' fall. Shakespeare's text and Fiennes' film thus present no catharsis at the end of the narrative: the murder of the (despicable) hero, who is a victim of himself and of others, is presented as undeserved. The director portrays the death of the protagonist as pitiless, raw and unjust. The choice of a solitary country road at Rome's outskirt (instead of the town of Corioles or Antium) is all the more impressive for the unceremonious fall of Coriolanus, whose corpse is not even mourned respectfully as it occurs in the original play. Caius' death-because the protagonist dies actually as the Roman Caius, reprising his initial enmity against the Volscians-is nevertheless not quick and immediate, but the warrior fights for his life and wounds some of his attackers while the sound of the knives lacerating his flesh can be heard over the absent soundtrack. The solemnity evoked by the obvious fact of a death is underlined by the absence of music during this sequence. What is emphasized is loss and absence, rather than celebration or integration.

Roger Ebert believes that "as Shakespeare, [this film] has too much action footage (Coriolanus' face seems permanently streaked with blood), and as action, it has too much Shakespeare". Action and the emphasis on the brutality of war are nevertheless well-balanced with the emphasis on the changeable nature of the populace, the dangers posed by political intrigues and the importance of loyalty. Notably, the film is ambiguous in its final judgment over the events and the protagonist's behaviour. This is a characteristic of the Shakespearian play itself, which, as Don Shewey argues, "is deeply suspicious of both heroism and democracy, and in the ethical battle between the arrogant patrician warrior and the countrymen he would rule, Shakespeare ascribes many layers of complexity and contradiction to both sides". Fiennes equally depicts the Tribunes of the People as mean and corrupt, selfishly attached to their political position rather than interested in the common good. The senators are shown as almost impotent against the mutability and incoherence of the populace. The latter is generally made of angry citizens who forget too easily about the general's patriotic service and use him as a scapegoat of their anger. On the other hand, Coriolanus' bad temper and his ill-concealed authoritarian thoughts suggest continually his tyrannical and non-republican beliefs, which cast a doubt on the character's integrity and rather depict him as a warrior more interested in blood than in the welfare of the community. What Fiennes 'Coriolanus demonstrates is the price paid by all soldiers, politicians and civilians who are involved in what Shakespeare defines properly as "the deepest malice of the war" (IV, vi, 41).

Antonio Sanna holds a PhD from the University of Westminster. He is a regular contributor to "The Quint", "Kinema" and "Interactions", but his publications include essays and reviews in many international journals and in the volumes Acts of Memory: The Victorian and Beyond, The Culture and Philosophy of Ridley Scott and The Zombie Renaissance in Popular Culture. He has recently contributed to Pop Culture in Europe.

Works Cited

D'Agostino, Nemi. Prefazione. In William Shakespeare. Coriolano. Milano, IT: Garzanti, 2006.xxxvii-xliv.

Dargis, Manohla. "He's the Hero of the People, and He Hates It". 10 January 2015.

Ebert, Roger. "Coriolanus". Review. 10 January 2015.

French, Philip. "Coriolanus". Review. 15 January 2015.

Hindle, Maurice. Studying Shakespeare on Film. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Holland, Peter. "Two-Dimensional Shakespeare: King Lear on Film" in Shakespeare and the Moving Image: The Plays on Film and Television. Eds. Anthony Davies and Stanley Wells. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. 50-68.

Hopkins, Lisa. Screen Adaptations: Shakespeare's The Tempest. The Relationship between Textand Film. Ed. Ian Hunter. London: Methuen Drama, 2008.

Lane, Anthony. "Loyalty Oaths: Ralph Fiennes's 'Coriolanus'". http://www.newyorker. com/arts/critics/cinema. 15 January 2015.

Lewis, Matthew. The Monk. [1796] London: Wordsworth Editions, 2009.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. [1614] Trans. N.H. Thomson. New York: Dover, 1992.

Maturin, Charles. Melmoth the Wanderer. [1820] Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992.

Shakespeare, William. Coriolano. Milano, IT: Garzanti, 2006.

Shewey, Don. "Power Politics-On Coriolanus". 13 August 2015.

Tookey, Chris. "Coriolanus. Review". 10 January 2015.

(1) Exemplary of the theatrical mode is Trevor Nunn's Channel 4 King Lear (2008, starring Ian McKellen). The third type of adaptation indicated by Jorgens is the filmic mode, which is exemplified by Derek Jarman's The Tempest (1979), Julie Taymor's Titus (1999) and The Tempest (2010), and Michael Almereyda's Hamlet (2000). In these works, film techniques (such as dissolves, camera angles, graphic compositions and long tracking shots) become evident and the visuals assume a greater importance than the plot itself or the fidelity to the text.

(2) Examples of the realistic mode are: Franco Zeffirelli's The Taming of the Shrew (1967), Stuart Burges' Julius Caesar (1970), Roman Polanski's Macbeth (1971), Oliver Parker's Othello (1995) and Michael Radford's The Merchant of Venice (2004), to mention merely a few.

(3) An illustrious example of the periodising mode is Richard Loncraine's Richard III (1995), starring Ian McKellen, which transposes the fifteenth-century events described in the play to a fictional 1930s England where Nazism has achieved local support and political prestige.

(4) Fiennes' interpretation of Coriolanus is emblematic of the fact that a film star often becomes iconographic for a genre or a role. Indeed, there are inescapable visual and verbal references to Fiennes' previous cinematic role in Brett Ratner's Red Dragon (2002), in which the actor interpreted the psychotic serial killer known as Frances Dolarhyde. Both Martius and Dolarhyde are violent and have the tattoo of a dragon in their back-a particular that is further underlined by the comment of Senator Menenius Agrippa "this Martius is grown from man to dragon. He has wings, he's more than a creeping thing". Also, the immediate association of Fiennes with the other villains he played brilliantly in the recent past-from Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter's saga (2001-11) to the god Hades in Louis Leterrier's Clash of the Titans (2010) and Jonathan Liebesman's Wrath of the Titans (2012)-can be established in those sequences in which Fiennes gives way to the Roman general's profound rage and fully demonstrates his hate towards the populace and the Tribunes of the People.

(5) Tookey believes that this play is so rarely performed because "other tragic heroes may become monsters, but we remain involved in their struggle. Coriolanus is such a proud, cold-hearted swine that spending more than two hours with him is a long, hard slog".

(6) G.B. Shaw defined Coriolanus as a "mad titan" who is governed only by his mother (qtd. in D'Agostino xxxvii).


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Coriolanus. Dir. Ralph Fiennes. Helmetof Pictures: 2011.

Dracula 2000. Dir. Patrick Lussier. Dimension Films: 2000.

Hamlet. Dir. Franco Zeffirelli. Warner Bros: 1990.

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Hamlet. Dir. Michael Almereyda. Buena Vista: 2000.

Henry V. Dir. Laurence Olivier. Eagle-Lion Films: 1944.

Julius Caesar. Dir. Stuart Burges. American International: 1970.

King Lear. Dir. Trevor Nunn. The Performance Company and Channel 4: 2008.

Macbeth. Dir. Roman Polanski. Columbia: 1971.

The Merchant of Venice. Dir. Michael Radford. UK Film Council: 2004.

Othello. Dir. Oliver Parker. Columbia: 1995.

Red Dragon. Dir. Brett Ratner. Universal: 2002.

Richard III. Dir. Richard Loncraine. United Artists: 1995.

The Taming of the Shrew. Dir. Franco Zeffirelli. Columbia: 1967.

The Tempest. Dir. Derek Jarman. Boyd's Company: 1979.

The Tempest. Dir. Julie Taymor. Touchstone: 2010.

Titus. Dir. Julie Taymor. Fox Searchlight: 1999.

Wrath of the Titans. Dir. Jonathan Liebesman. Warner Bros: 2012.
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Author:Sanna, Antonio
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Date:Mar 22, 2016
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