A warrior whets his knife blade on a stone as the camera peers over a patterned tattoo on his shoulder. The tattoo's filigree matches that on the knife's blade. The visual suggestion is that we are in an ancient military environment but that image is quickly overlaid by the present as we see that the warrior is watching a live television news report featuring corn riots in the streets of Rome. The age of stone and steel and decorated flesh is ancient and modern; tribal and today. The live action news report shows protestors attacking the fence surrounding the grain silos and they are met by troops led by a bald, hawk-nosed, eagle-eyed general with CAIUS MARTIUS printed on the pocket of his uniform for whom we quickly learn language is power: "He that will give good words to thee will flatter / Beneath abhorring. What would you have, you curs, / That like not peace nor war? He that trusts to you, / Where he should find you lions, finds you hares; / Where foxes, geese."
So begins Ralph Fiennes's daring and underappreciated film of Coriolanus. Bolstered by an intelligent screenplay by John Logan (whose other work includes Gladiator, The Aviator, and Hugo) Fiennes re-imagines Shakespeare's bitter tragedy in and for our time by setting it during the Bosnian War. The film also contains uncanny echoes of the Arab Spring from Cairo to Tripoli to Homs using many of the same techniques (handheld camera, tight shots, simultaneous shooting from multiple perspectives) and the cinematographer (Barry Ackroyd) that defined Kathryn Bigelow's Academy Award-winning The Hurt Locker. Logan's screenplay and Ackroyd's camera translate the play into a modern media world [End Page 145] so that the film becomes an apotheosis of Peter Donaldson's notion that many of the recent Shakespeare films are conceived as "media allegories."
Logan takes Shakespeare's most rhetorically difficult text and makes it sound almost prosaic enough to pass for the endless chatter of the twenty-four hour news cycle. In this media feat he is superbly aided by Brian Cox (Menenius), Paul Jesson (Tribune Sicinius), and James Nesbitt (Tribune Brutus), who deliver Shakespeare's weighty iambic pentameters and muscular prose in the confidential tones of Machiavellian political manipulators. Logan's screenplay (visual as well as verbal) sacrifices Menenius's great Fable of the Belly (but does give him a Roman suicide), which provides a philosophical counterweight to the actions of the mob and to Coriolanus's genetic inability to listen to, or even acknowledge, the street. The street is a cacophony of European and African ethnicities and accents again asserting a neat parallel between Shakespeare's Rome and ours.
Vanessa Redgrave (Volumnia) is equally adept at turning down the volume to make her iron strictures seem the soul of maternal nurture. She captures less well Volumnia's stridency and her delivery of "Anger's my meat" would flutter few Volskies in their dove-cotes. When Cox and Redgrave are at their best together they invent a new way of speaking Shakespeare's verse on film: as two old pros whose art has so internalized Shakespeare's rhythms and images that they issue forth as perfectly tuned to the contemporary ear. Branagh and many of his regulars have come close to achieving this trick of making Shakespeare sound modern and conversational but Cox and Redgrave polish and perfect it in Coriolanus. The exception (surely intentional) is Fiennes himself. He holds nothing back in releasing Coriolanus's angry snarls and gnarled invective. He simply cannot be contained: by language, custom, decorum, or media presentation; he refuses...