Sunday, May 19, 2013

Hollywood Romans #14 Coriolanus

“Coriolanus has grown from man to dragon.”

(2011) 123 minutes
Directed by Ralph Fiennes
Screenplay by John Logan based upon the play by William Shakespeare
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox and Vanessa Redgrave

“Oh mother what have you done to me?  You have saved Rome, but you have ruined your son.” – Caius Marcius Coriolanus

Caius Marcius (527—490 BCE), later given the name Coriolanus in honor of his heroism at the Battle of Corioli, was a patrician general from the earliest days of the Roman Republic.  Indeed, his first heroic exploits, for which he won the Civic Crown, were at the Battle of Lake Regillus, where the victorious Romans ended once and for all the efforts of their former king, Tarquin the Proud, to regain his throne. 

Hailed as a hero, Coriolanus embodied those martial virtues that all Romans aspired to while at the same time he exuded the particularly Patrician arrogance that the Roman people despised.  Like Scipio Africanus, who outfought every opponent in battle but was constantly out maneuvered by his political enemies in the Senate, so too Coriolanus had no skill for politics.  To say he lacked ‘the common touch’ is an understatement.  His disdain for the people coupled with his rigid inflexibility allowed Coriolanus to be easily ambushed by his opponents, the newly created Tribunes of the People, who contrived to have him exiled from the city.

Unlike Scipio, also forced into exile by his political foes, Coriolanus did not “go quietly into this good night.”  Instead he joined with Rome’s enemies, the Volscian tribes, leading them from victory to victory until they stood before the very gates of Rome.  The Romans sent numerous embassies to treat with Coriolanus, but he rebuffed them all.  It was not until the women of Rome, lead by his mother and his wife, came to the Volscian Camp and prostrated themselves before him, that Coriolanus relented.  Moved by this show of humility and sacrifice, Coriolanus withdrew his army. 

Some stories say the Volscians assassinated Coriolanus for this change of heart, while others tell us that he lived out his life in solitary exile, a broken man.

From this story Shakespeare shaped his play, and although Coriolanus may be more fiction than fact, he was accepted as real by the Romans and considered an integral part of their history.  His story speaks to the early struggles between the Patricians and the plebs to find the balance that would allow the Roman Republic to not only survive but to thrive, and indeed flourish into the Empire so well known today.

In an earlier review I commented that, sometimes, dramatic writing trumps historical accuracy.  This was never truer than with the plays of William Shakespeare.  A poet who often plumbed the depths of history for his plots, Shakespeare was never one to let history get in the way of drama.  In this he is very much like the film producer Darryl Zanuck who once opined, “There is nothing duller on the screen than being accurate but not dramatic.”  Indeed, Shakespeare has proven to be so dramatic and durable a playwright that his works have endured an endless parade of adaptations, re-interpretations and translations into new languages, cultures and media.  Some of these have worked better than others.1

Hollywood has always approached Shakespeare with some trepidation, for despite their critical acclaim, these films rarely make any money.2  (The one noteworthy exception being Shakespeare In Love which won the Oscar for Best Film against very stiff competition.)  So it is a testament to the persuasive powers of Ralph Fiennes that he was able to find funding for his film of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. 

Written late in Shakespeare’s career, long after his more famous plays, Coriolanus shares some of the same themes found in those earlier works: ambition, hubris, betrayal and manipulation by loved ones both subtle or not.  Where it differs, and significantly so, is in the conception of Coriolanus himself.  Unlike say Hamlet, or Richard III, Coriolanus is not given any long soliloquy in which he reveals his musings and motivations.  We have no ‘window into his soul’ and so Coriolanus remains something of an enigma.

T.S. Elliot thought Coriolanus superior to Hamlet or Macbeth for the very reason that he is not dissected and laid out for us, but rather remains opaque and difficult to pin down with any certainty.  Coriolanus is a slippery customer, in more ways than one, so it comes as no surprise that so many actors have sought to play this character on stage.3   Interestingly, Ralph Fiennes is one of the first to attempt a feature film of this particular play.

Lawrence Olivier as Coriolanus.  His
1937 performance, and 1956 reprise are
still considered by many critics to be the
definitive portrayal of this character.

In deciding to both direct and star in this film, Ralph Fiennes has taken on a momentous challenge, that, I am happy to say, he meets with great success, for the most part.

One of the first challenges that confronts any artist approaching Shakespeare is the language. How do you make the play accessible, understandable and dramatic to a modern audience?  Do you keep the setting and language intact (ala Joseph Manckiewicz’s Julius Caesar) or drop both while retaining the basic plot (Robert Wise’s Westside Story) or some combination there of?

For Fiennes, the language was key.  In an interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, Fiennes noted that he was first attracted to acting by the beauty and rhythm in Shakespeare’s language, so for him there was no question but that it would remain intact.4   Of course, the text has been edited, Coriolanus being one of Shakespeare’s longest plays, but on the whole the language is as Shakespeare wrote it. 

The other major challenge is setting, and here Fiennes has shown a deft imagination.

A subtitle early in the film tells us that we are in A place that calls itself Rome.”  This one simple sentence is the perfect preamble and makes the meshing of ancient and modern much less jarring than it otherwise might be.

Fiennes has opted for a contemporary setting and in doing so he has eliminated many problems that plague films set in Ancient Rome.  Instead of armor and shields, Coriolanus and his legionaries wear 21st Century ‘digital’ camouflage, ride armored IFV’s and wield assault rifles and RPG’s rather than gladius and pilum.

This design sensibility extends to the civilian characters as well, with tribunes and senators in business suits rather than togas, and the plebs in standard work-a-day clothing.  For the Romans, dress uniforms are the order of the day for soldiers not on the battlefield while the Volscians favor a potpourri of different camouflage patterns, on and off the battlefield, as seen in many newly formed armies and militias in the world today.

Consistent with this concept, Fiennes has assembled a first rate cast that is as racially and ethnically diverse as the population one might find in almost any city today.  Many of the actors are well known and, generally speaking, they all acquit themselves admirably. 

Of special note is Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia, the mother of Coriolanus.  Either in her be-medaled uniform, or simple civilian attire, it is clear Volumnia is a women to be reckoned with.  When she physically assaults the Tribunes on the steps of the Senate, even though their persons are inviolate, no one dares to stop her.  Even the Tribunes themselves seem feeble next to her.  It is no wonder then that Coriolanus is no match for his mother’s manipulations of him.  She is in fact as driven by Patrician pride as is Coriolanus, and it is only at the end, when Coriolanus tells her, “O my mother, You have won a happy victory to Rome; But for your son …” that she realizes the true cost of her ambition.

Throughout the film Fiennes uses several styles of cinematography, including hand-held ‘you are there’ shaky-cam (thankfully kept to a minimum), faux news footage, and more traditional shots.  To his credit, Fiennes eschews the rapid fire quick cut editing found in so many films today.  Instead, he allows scenes to build and develop over time, and while some might find this pacing to be too slow, I found it a refreshing and welcome change.

Not surprisingly, the color palate is subdued, with the only really bright colors being those of the Roman dress uniforms festooned with ribbons and medals. 

Of course, as Shakespeare tells us, ‘the play’s the thing’ and here we have a mixed result. 

At its best, the film is riveting.  This is not surprising in the combat scenes, all of which are well choreographed and expertly shot.  Clearly Fiennes and his cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, have been paying attention to current events.

At its worst, character motivations are unclear and confusing.  This may be due in part to the editorial decisions Fiennes made with the original text.  However, in this case the problem is often due, most annoyingly, to lines being lost either in the hurly-burly of the scene or simply delivered too naturalistically, resulting in their being neither distinct or, in some cases, even heard.  In their film adaptations Oliver, McKellen and Branagh took care to insure that all lines were delivered and heard clearly and crisply.5   This is not always so in Coriolanus, and while this may be more of a technical issue than one of acting, clearly the issue rests at the feet of the director.

However, in all other aspects Fiennes does an excellent job as both actor and director.

One scene merits special attention.  It is a scene not found in the play, but rather one devised by Fiennes and his screenwriter John Logan, and it serves to tell us much about Coriolanus the man.6

Now exiled, sporting shoulder length hair and unkempt beard, Coriolanus has traveled to the Volscain capital, looking for his rival, Aufidius (Gerard Butler).  He spies the enemy general walking down the street with a few bodyguards.  As he strolls with casual ease the people greet Aufidius warmly and though clearly on his way somewhere, he takes time to return their greetings and to make small talk with diners at an outdoor cafĂ©.

As he watches this transpire, we see Coriolanus hit bottom as he realizes how truly miserable his fate is.  Here is Aufidius, loved by the people even though he has lost many battles, while he, Coriolanus, who has brought the Romans victory after victory is hated and despised by his fellow Romans. It is then that Coriolanus resolves to join with Aufidius, and avenge himself on the Romans, or to let Aufidius take his life and so end this wretched exile.

The scene works perfectly because Fiennes has the confidence to let the images speak for themselves, and they speak volumes.

In contrast, the final scene, when Aufidius kills Coriolanus, does not work as well.  Although this scene is in the play, in the film the motivations of the various characters do not seem clear, particularly Aufidius’s several changes of heart.  Again I think this more a problem with Fiennes’ concept of the scene rather than Butler’s performance.  In fact, I wish Fiennes had, once again, strayed a little more from the text and instead given us a final shot of Coriolanus, sitting by himself, staring into space.  Much like Michael Corleone at the end of the Godfather, we would see Coriolanus as a victim of his own success – victorious and defeated all at the same time.

All in all, Coriolanus is well worth making the effort to see and in fact may work even better on television, giving it a more visceral reality. 

Coriolanus is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.


1   In several interviews Fiennes has related how he was inspired to take on the challenge of Coriolanus by Baz Luhrman’s film adaptation of Romeo And Juliet.  Likewise, working with directors like Anthony Mingehlla (The English Patient) and Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List) built in him a desire to direct. 

Of course there have been many feature films adapted from Shakespeare and everyone has their favorites.  Wikipedia has a long, but by no means complete, list of screen adaptations.  For me, the best are those by Olivier, Branagh, McKellen and Kurosawa, to which I would also add Forbidden Planet, a Sci-Fi reworking of The Tempest, and Shakespeare In Love.

2   The production budget for Coriolanus was reported to be $10 million. To date, the worldwide box office is just over $1 million.  Sales of Blu-ray and DVD as well as to Broadcast and Cable Television might bring in another million or so.  Clearly this is a case of a film made for the sake of art, not profit.

One side note: With a production cost of $40 million (on an original budget of $25 million) Shakespeare In Love has grossed over $300 million (including both box office and ancillary markets like DVD and Cable TV).

3  “The most famous Coriolanus in history is Laurence Olivier, who first played the part triumphantly at the Old Vic Theatre in 1937 and returned to it to even greater acclaim at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1959. In that production, he famously performed Coriolanus' death scene by dropping backwards from a high platform and being suspended upside-down (without the aid of wires), a death reminiscent of Mussolini's. In 1971 the play returned to the Old Vic in a National Theatre production directed by Manfred Wekwerth and Joachim Tenschert with stage design by Karl von Appen. Anthony Hopkins played Coriolanus, with Constance Cummings as Volumnia and Anna Carteret as Virgilia.
Another notable Coriolanus of the twentieth century was Richard Burton, who also recorded the complete play for Caedmon Records.
Other famous performances of Coriolanus include Paul Scofield, Ian McKellen, Toby Stephens, Robert Ryan, Christopher Walken, Morgan Freeman, Colm Feore, and Ralph Fiennes. Alan Howard played Coriolanus in the 1984 BBC production.”

4   The Jon Stewart interview on December 7, 2011

5   Reportedly, Olivier purposely spoke his first few lines slowly and distinctly to give the audience time to adjust to the rhythm and cadence of the language.  Fiennes notes too that it takes a few moments to adjust one’s ear from modern language to the poetry of Shakespeare.

Likewise, with the possible exception of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, every director edits Shakespeare’s text, usually to meet contractual obligations for a film less than two hours in length.  Some edit for reasons of focus or pacing, but generally the main narrative thrust remains intact as it does with Coriolanus.

6   John Logan’s screenwriting credits include: Gladiator, The Last Samurai, Rango, Hugo and the new James Bond film Skyfall.

 This Review was first posted on the Ancient Warfare Magazine web site June, 2012
(c) 2012 David L Reinke

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Cinema Caesars -- A Streetcar Named Antony

Julius Caesar (1953)

120 min.
Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz
Writer: William Shakespeare (adapted by Mankiewicz)
Starring: Marlon Brando, James Mason, John Gielgud, Louis Calhern, Greer Garrson, and Deborah Kerr

After watching the 1970 film of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar it was suggested that I look again at the earlier John Houseman production staring Marlon Brando in the pivotal role of Mark Antony.  In fact I had seen the film many years ago, and remembered it as being quite good, however a “refresher” viewing did seem in order.

Unlike the 1970 film, which was more of a low budget ‘labor of love,’ this earlier effort was a prestige production, given a large budget with the intent of making a first class film of Shakespeare’s play, while also riding on the coat tails of the recently popular Quo Vadis and beating The Robe to theatres by several months.

Although the title is Julius Caesar, the play and the film are more concerned with Brutus and his interplay with Cassius and Antony.  In this Mankiewicz has cast well.

As Brutus, James Mason displays the brooding intelligence of a man clearly swimming in political waters far deeper than he is qualified for, either by training or temperament.  Likewise Gielgud, as Cassius, is appropriately manipulative.  Cassius has his own agenda and is happy to use Brutus to reach that end.  In a similar manner, Mankiewicz has filled the other roles with excellent actors who are uniformly comfortable with Shakespeare’s language to the point that they can use it as a means of investing their characters with a reality that is both honest and entertaining. 

All of this is to the good and serves the production well, but it is in the casting of Marlon Brando as Mark Antony that Mankiewicz and Houseman show true genius.  Originally the director had sought Paul Schofield (A Man For All Seasons, Quiz Show) for the role of Antony, but changed his mind when Brando’s screen test came in better than expected.  Brando was an actor of immense talent and is not only comfortable with the language but more than holds his own with the classically trained actors in the cast who have far more experience with the Bard.  Brando’s timing and dramatic sense are impeccable.  What’s more, Brando infuses Antony with a pugnacious air that seems completely appropriate to Antony both dramatically and historically.

In terms of screen time, Antony might be considered a secondary character, for he really has only one scene to call his own, but what a scene it is and Brando plays it for all that it's worth!  Antony’s speech alone, as played by Brando, is worth the price of admission.

That being said …

In all other considerations this production is no better than the 1970 film.  Costumes are standard “Hollywood Roman” with many of the legionaries wearing armor we will see again in 1959’s Ben-Hur.  The same holds true for the sets (portrait busts of Hadrian are everywhere present) and once again, as with the 1970 film, the Battle of Philippi bears no resemblance whatsoever to history or indeed to anything particularly Roman.   Of course, one does not watch this film looking for historical insight, or even fidelity, but rather for excellence in acting and in this the viewer will not be disappointed.

More to the point, how does the 1953 film compare to one from 1970?

The key to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is the triumvirate of Brutus-Cassius-Antony.  The balance among these three characters is both critical and delicate – the play rises or falls on this and it is here that we see the big difference between the two films.

I admire the 1970 film for the energy and effort of the cast and crew working with their limited budget.  In many respects the film feels like a good community theatre production and one appreciates the work and commitment on display.  However, in that production the critical triumvirate, as played by Robards-Johnson-Heston, is wildly out of balance.  Despite the good work done by many of the actors they cannot restore the balance upset by Robards’ poor performance.

In contrast, the acting triumvirate at the center of the 1953 film, Mason-Gielguid-Brando is perfect.  The strength of the acting talent on display here is so good that, rather than being impressed with how well the actors recite Shakespeare we are caught up in the story itself and wonder what the character will do next (even though we know the play line by line).

The key scene in both the play and the films is the Forum oration given by Brutus and Antony.  The play turns on this scene.  Heston, as Antony, works hard to restore the energy sucked out of the scene by Robards, but despite his best efforts he is not up to the task.  Mason’s Brutus, on the other hand gives a superb speech, setting the stage perfectly for Brando who does not waste his fellow actor’s efforts. Brando builds upon that well laid foundation, his smoldering rage barley kept in check as he turns the people of Rome from rejoicing at the death of a tyrant to mourning the loss of their father.  It is a performance for the ages.

Much has been written about Brando as the premier American Actor, but most viewers, who are familiar only with his later films, may wonder what all the hoopla is about.  Watching his performance in Julius Caesar leaves no doubt as to his talent.

In an earlier posting I gave the 1970 film a favorable review, and I stand by that – I enjoyed that film with the caveat that Jason Robards is terribly miscast as Brutus.  However, I have no such misgiving about the 1953 production.  Indeed, if you are looking for acting at its finest you need look no further than the Mason – Brando speeches in the Forum. 

The film is currently available on DVD from Amazon

This review was first posted in January, 2011 on the Ancient Warfare Magazine website
 (c) 2011 David L Reinke