"He's a very dog to the commonalty." These are the words we hear about Caius Marcius before we even meet the man, and they ring true both within the context of the play and in the context of much of society's view of the play. Shakespeare's Coriolanus has been called the greatest of the Bard's tragedies, the tragic character surpassed perhaps only by Lear and Cleopatra. Despite most people recognizing something great about it, it is also among the least-loved of Shakespeare's plays. It is seldom read and almost never acted; you would likely be hard pressed to find it on someone's list of favorite plays. There are, perhaps, two great reasons for this. The first is that the play seems to be quite critical of democracy, and that rubs the people of liberal democracies the wrong way. The other is that it is just really hard to like the play's tragic hero, Coriolanus. He's a great man, but not lovable. It's hard to feel sorry for him, but you realize that there is something tragic in his eventual fall. It's complicated.
In his new film adaptation of this play, Ralph Fiennes captures this complication tremendously. With the support of well-tested screenwriter John Logan (whose other work includes Hugo and Gladiator) and a cast of excellent actors rounded out by Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox, Fiennes thrusts this story into modern-day dress. Shakespeare's words come out of television screens by men in suits and ties; his soldiers run around with automatic weapons and hand grenades; his rabble follows politicians around with their cell phones out to record the goings-on. It does this all seamlessly, and shows the timelessness of Shakespeare's understanding of human nature--you come to see that this could have happened in the modern-day Balkan-like setting where it is acted out.
It is a good story for us to try and understand, because Coriolanus presents a problem that societies based upon a certain type of equality must struggle with: what do we do with a man who is an embodiment of inequality, a greater man who we all know is great and who he himself knows is great? We were lucky in our Founding that Washington understood something else about ambition, equality, and nobility that most men do not, and that our great generals after him--Grant and Eisenhower chief among them--have followed in his example. The French with Bonaparte, the Mexicans with Santa Anna, and the South Americans with Bolivar were not so lucky. Though, those men were not quite as good and noble as Coriolanus was, so perhaps that is unfair to him. Perhaps the closest type of statesman we have met recently is Churchill, who, like Washington, managed to overcome these particular faults (or are they virtues in extremis?).
I highly recommend the film. Yes, lines had to be cut to make way for movie audiences and explosions--at the expense of some of the true humor of Menenius and exploring more of the relationship between Coriolanus and his wife--and I do have some qualms with the interpretation of part of the ending, but it is some of the best acting I have seen in film, and likely the high point of the acting careers of both Fiennes and Redgrave to-date (at least of what I've seen of their work). If you get a chance, see it.
10:39 PM / March 11, 2012