Review - Power and pride: a tale for today

27th January 2012 at 00:00
Coriolanus is in cinemas now

On a balcony, an elderly woman in black stands frozen, her chin quivering, as bullets fly around her.

Shakespeare did not write this many bullets into Coriolanus. In fact, Coriolanus, the least-known of his Roman plays, is filled with togas and daggers, but no bullets at all.

Ralph Fiennes' film version updates the action to a Rome that looks a lot like Serbia (literally: it was filmed there). And right from the bullet-filled outset, it works beautifully.

Belying the Elizabethan English, Coriolanus speaks a visual language that is instantly contemporary and familiar. Men in military fatigues, with foreign-sounding names, give interviews to camera. Jon Snow - speaking in pentameter - presides over a studio debate.

This is a testosterone-soaked version of Rome, where men trade dagger blows with phallic intensity. It is a Rome where power is all, and power is slippery. A Rome, therefore, exactly as Shakespeare imagined it.

War-scarred general Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes), however, is unwilling to pursue power if it means courting the goodwill of the people. He is too proud for democracy, and we all know what pride precedes. "Fragments!" he spits at the populace, with more disgust than most people cram into more conventional F-words.

The one person he does like, however, is his mother (Vanessa Redgrave). This relationship is played with post-Freudian knowingness: it is the urge to become the man his mother wants him to be that has driven Coriolanus to succeed. And it is what will drive him to his doom.

Specifically, it leads him to Tullus Aufidius, an enemy rebel with whom he can wreak revenge on the ungrateful Roman people. Aufidius (Gerard Butler) and Coriolanus share a hatred born of deep respect: seeing Coriolanus defect, says Aufidius, makes him happier than he was on his wedding night. Yes, there is sexual tension with his mother. There is sexual tension with his arch-enemy. There is, however, no sexual tension at all with his wife (who, to be fair, has about three lines).

Coriolanus may not be a Hamlet or even a Julius Caesar, but it should not be underestimated. This seamless, meticulously thought-out adaptation proves that a Jacobean play about ancient Rome can be entirely relevant to a modern audience.

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