In 2011, Ralph Fiennes made his directorial debut with a filmed version of Coriolanus. Why he did this, I cannot say. My guess would be that it was ripe for the picking: it is the first filmed version of the play that I am aware of. But there is a reason that it hasn’t been filmed and generally isn’t performed that much.
Coriolanus is perhaps Shakespeare’s most difficult play because its title character is a symbol of everything that liberal democracy stands against. It shows total contempt for the masses and goes out of its way to make them look bad and so justify the title character’s total disdain for them. It is not in the least surprising that the fascists loved the play. France banned its performance in the 1930s because of this. But more than a hundred years earlier, William Hazlitt described the character perfectly with all its problems:
The story itself is very much like an Ayn Rand novel. Coriolanus is an uncompromising warrior who despises the people. When they don’t love him as he feels they ought to, he joins the Volsci and attacks Rome. Think about how ridiculous that is. The Volsci army could not conquer Rome, but with the addition of a single man, they are invincible. This is not how war works. In war, the stronger army wins except when there is some special circumstance like a new technology (for example, Battle of Agincourt) or geography (for example, Battle of Stirling Bridge). So this idea that Coriolanus would simply revolutionize the fighting prowess of the Volsci is rubbish of the worst kind of romantic fiction. The Iliad — itself highly romantic — is a far more accurate representation of war.
In addition to this, those people who pushed Coriolanus out of Rome are presented as the very worst kind of politicos. They, and the people they cynically claim to represent, are Ayn Rand’s “moochers.” Coriolanus is cast as a “marker,” even though he doesn’t make anything. He is a warrior. He takes. Yet he is a near perfect character for Rand’s proto-fascist philosophy. And I’m not alone in seeing it that way. A commenter over at Quick Translator wrote:
The writer clearly doesn’t understand Rand very well, or he would see that Coriolanus is both a fascist strongman and John Galt. Both are men who hate almost everyone and feel very wronged that they are not better treated — despite the fact that they are very well treated indeed. And when they don’t get all that they think they deserve, they rebel. In Galt’s case by going home and taking his toys with him and in Coriolanus’ by attacking his homeland.
But the problem is not with the hero. The problem is the way that everyone else is portrayed as evil and lazy. Coriolanus, his familiy, and Menenius (his father figure) are presented as good. They are juxtaposed with Brutus and Sicinius who are so smarmy that there is really no way to like them. And they are the defenders of the plebs — the Roman middle class. You know: the small businessmen and workers who keep the whole of society functioning. But not in the play! No, here they are just a bunch of people who stand around and complain.
Note that this play is not exactly an outlier for our good friend Shakespeare. His plays are riddled with attacks on the lower classes and praise for the upper classes. If a poor character acts nobly, you can be certain that by the end of the play, we will find out that he is really the long lost son of royalty. It’s actually quite disgusting and is one of the reason that I prefer the more radical Christopher Marlowe and Lope de Vega.
As for the film, it is well made. The acting is superb. The various technical departments make it a far more engaging film than I would have expected. Still, I have problems with the modernization of the play. John Logan is an excellent screenwriter. But it is hard to make this play work in the present. I’m tired of seeing television screens in movies, and this one is full of them. Yet despite all of the work to make the commentary come to life, it is hardly clear what is going on. The play is very long and Logan has knocked it down to two hours, much of which has no dialog. So it is all very simplistic: the moochers push out Coriolanus when they should be licking his boots and he gets all hurt and turns traitor.
But in the end, there really is no fixing the play or the character. Coriolanus isn’t even a smart character like Richard III who we hate yet admire for his brilliance. Coriolanus is portrayed as an uncompromising warrior who just can’t deal with duplicity of politics. Who but an idiot thinks that his great skills on guitar should be all that is necessary when he decides to be a moose tracker? And who but an immature adolescent would get angry at the moose when they don’t come running when they hear the sweet sound of his blues licks? I think this is why Fiennes really plays up the “mama’s boy” aspect of the character. But this hardly makes the thoroughly unlikable Coriolanus more palatable.
Ultimately, I don’t like this film because it does everything to vilify the forces of democracy — even going so far as to have Brutus and Sicinius beaten up by two aristocratic women — and everything to humanize the forces of aristocracy. The play itself is bad enough. Fiennes has made it worse. And it really doesn’t matter that he did it with great ability. It sits in the very uneasy realm of films like The Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will. Although those films were artistically great and politically lethal. Coriolanus is artistically competent and politically noxious.