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“It is held that valor is the chiefest virtue, and most dignifies the haver.”   — Coriolanus, Act II, Scene ii

T.S. Eliot famously proclaimed Coriolanus superior to Hamlet, calling it Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy.  I don’t think it’s a very often read play — I took a two semesters of Shakespeare in college and we never read it — but Ralph Fiennes excellent screen adaptation of this bloody, conflicted play might change that.  While Baz Luhrman’s ” Romeo + Juliet”  is probably still the easiest entry point, This  “Coriolanus” wouldn’t be a bad early exposure to Shakespeare.  It’s talky in places, but not nearly as much as Hamlet, and it’s not all love poetry, corsets, and capes. You might be able to get a teenage boy to watch this.

It’s a movie about a born warrior, a man who only respects men who can match him in battle, or die bravely at his hand. “He was a thing of blood, whose every motion was timed with dying cries.” Honor is what matters to him, and honor is attained by killing lesser men on the battlefield. He is a man of violence, and knows no relationship than that of violence. The man he respects most is his most terrible enemy.   Ralph Fiennes, who both directed and stars as Caius Martius Coriolanus, is electric from the first moment he’s on screen to the last.

Vanessa Redgrave plays his mother, his mentor, and his closest friend.  Martius keeps his wife at a distance (she is played by the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain, who is given little to do but stand around and look worried and/or tearful) but his mother has his ear — and his heart.  She is as thirsty for honor as he is, and delights in his decorations. The pride she takes in her son borders on the maniacal.    She is the one who lifts him itnto the public sphere; she is also his downfall and his death.

Because when the wars are over, Martius is a fish out of water.  A national hero for his military deeds, he is nominated for a seat in the Senate.  But he cannot play the political game, not even a little bit.  He holds the common  people in contempt; they are dirty and lazy, and their opinions are cheaply bought.  (We aren’t given much reason to believe he’s wrong in his opinion of them; a different production of “Coriolanus” might paint the people of the city in a more favorable light.) Country is a noble idea for Martius more than a place; it is represented by a flag and a uniform.  He is more suited to be a dictator than a public servant.  Indeed, if not for his mother, that is what he might someday become.  He knows but one way to lead, and that is through domination and threats.

It takes place in modern times, which means it’s a fictional Rome, but it doesn’t feel too terribly fictional.   Fiennes shot the film in Belgrade, and took full advantage of the post-war destruction that is still there.  The shots of worn-down industrial landscapes, garbage strewn streets and graffiti-laden, crumbling buildings give the film a sense of gravity.  As Keith Phipps says in his review, “it could be any place where civilization has started to teeter on the brink thanks to war and inequality.”  The conflict looks a lot like news footage from Serbia a few years ago, and, with the way things are going in the EU right now, it’s not hard to imagine famine and civil war plaguing Eastern Europe again in the near future.

Some reviewers have sniffed at Fienne’s thoroughly modern take on “Coriolanus.”  Roger Ebert wrote “As Shakespeare, it has too much action footage…and as action, it has too much Shakespeare,” whatever that means. But I found it to be a gripping tale, an exciting movie laden with some interesting questions.  Should a man lead a country because he is skilled at killing other men?  Shouldn’t an ability to listen and respect another’s viewpoint, to problem solve, negotiate and compromise, and above all, to seek wisdom from other wise men be better qualifications? But what of the uneducated, attention-deficit, and easily manipulated crowd?  Must their voice be taken into account, even when it lacks wisdom or common sense?  These are questions Shakespeare was asking with his play 400 years ago, and they are questions we should be grappling with today.


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