by Richard von Busack
One of the most exciting films of 2012 finally arrives in Santa Cruz at the Nickelodeon: Ralph Fiennes’ version of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (other locations besides Santa Cruz here.). This obscurer play has not been made into a feature film since 1963, when the former Tarzan Gordon Scott played a sword and sandals version in Italy.
This Coriolanus is a labor-of-love film, financed by the hours Fiennes spent in makeup, noseless and bellowing hoarse and empty threats at Harry Potter.
The text has been sheared and arranged by John Logan. The ancient Roman story has been updated to an alternate-history Balkans. Fiennes shot it among the industrial ruins of Belgrade. The film is about all varieties of war: civil war, foreign war, and the terrible hand to hand knife combat that concludes the tragedy.
Caius Martius (Fiennes) is later awarded the honorary title “Coriolanus” in honor of a battle he won. After brutally repressing rebels from a neighboring province, Coriolanus is pushed into a peacetime career as a senator. (Behind the pushing is a too-smart powerbroker Menenius, played by Brian Cox.)
But Coriolanus’s past as a fighter against the poorest classes comes back to haunt him. The false humility of the politician doesn’t dwell in him. Charged with banishment, Coriolanus becomes a turncoat, offering his services to the Volsci rebels he once “like an eagle in a dove-cote/…flutter’d.”.
These barbarians are led by the general’s old nemesis Tullus (a never better Gerard Butler) who quite rightly doesn’t trust the Roman. He’s willing to put aside his hatred for the time being.
But there’s another side to the story—there always is in Shakespeare. The buffed, bullet-headed Fiennes—so muscular he gives Butler a run for the money—may be a victim of a warped family, whose love of martial glory is a madness of its own. Vanessa Redgrave, who got the SF Film Critics’ Circle award for best supporting actress, plays one of Shakespeare’s least-known women warriors, Volumnia. This mother who believes in the come-back-with-your-shield-or-on-it rule has a military uniform of her own.
An older actress has to go where she’s took. The bit parts we’ve seen Redgrave in lately–guileless, life-affirming, jaw agape with gentleness—are all more evidence of the sad way the filmmaking business treats an aged woman. Here, she has some Shakespeare to tear into, and here’s where we get to see what a tiger’s heart is wrapped in that woman’s hide.
“World’s Greatest Film CriticTM” Slavko Zizek has already endorsed Coriolanus as anti-fascist, despite the usual, superficial (and maybe accurate) reading: that the play is a full-throated endorsement of Roman valor at its most self-sacrificing. What it is, is frightening: a glimpse of the rage shared by the governed and the governing. I’d love to see the look on John McCain or John Kerry’s faces after they saw this.