Sometimes the book is better than the movie — even when “the book” is “the script.”
I first spotted news of a Ralph Fiennes / Gerard Butler Coriolanus movie back in October 2009. Well, the movie came and went in a very limited release late in 2011 (I don’t recall it ever coming through Boston), but it snuck onto DVD within the last couple of weeks and I got a copy for Father’s Day. Prior to that I’d actually gotten a copy of the shooting script, which I reviewed here.
Here’s my really high level summary of the play, which I admit to having limited knowledge of: Caius Marcius (played by Ralph Fiennes, who gets the Coriolanus title later in the play) is the super-soldier of the Roman army, doing battle against the Volscians, let by Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). Although Marcius had received some 27 wounds in more than a dozen battles, he has never been able to defeat Aufidius. In fact they even battle hand-to-hand at the battle of Corioles, and it ends in a draw.
Well, Marcius’ advisors urge him to make a move into political office, and playing to the whims of the people is not in Marcius’ nature. This goes badly for him, and it’s not long before his enemies (and the people of Rome) are screaming for his head. But they’ll accept his banishment.
Marcius (now Coriolanus) does that natural thing, he walks straight into the Volscian camp, makes peace with his sworn enemy, and chooses to march on Rome.
This is where the entirety of the Roman empire has a collective, “What have we done?!” moment and scramble to figure out how to calm the enraged dragon (lots of dragon references in this play). They send Coriolanus’ wife, mother and child to try and talk some sense into him. It’s a very weird image, no doubt — this one-man army that has all of Rome quaking, and his mother giving him a guilt trip. And having it work.
So, how was the movie?
I had some pretty high expectations after reading the script, and I was disappointed in the beginning. The direction is, well, it’s not good. As I live-tweeted my experience, this was echoed back at me from all angles – don’t like the direction. The battle scenes in particular cut all over the place, and scenes from the script that I thought were going to be these amazing moments just come and go like nothing. The whole battle at Corioles is supposed to be Caius Marcius single-handedly routing the Volscians. I expected to see Fiennes’ character elevated into some sort of superhuman killing machine. What I saw instead was just a battle scene that could have been any other battle scene, it just happened to have Fiennes in the lead.
After the battle there’s another scene that the script pays careful attention to, where Coriolanus’ mother is binding his wounds after battle, and his wife walks in on them. The way it’s written there’s supposed to be this awkward moment where both Coriolanus and his mother look at the wife like she’s the outsider, like this bond between mother and son is the most natural thing in the world. In the actual movie, however, this scene just comes and goes so quickly you wonder why it was even left in.
What I did like about the movie is when it shifted over into the political maneuvering. Coriolanus is quickly taken out of his element and turned into a pawn where two sides are clearly shoving him around the board for their own gain. He begrudgingly wins the support of the people (something he’s been told is required), but the second he leaves, his political enemies swoop in and turn the crowd right back in the other direction.
When people want to cite examples of how to turn a crowd through oratory they often go to Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar. But Coriolanus has plenty such moments. “He should have showed us his battle scars!” calls out one of the citizens. This is something that was hyped up by his handlers — the people want to see him take off his shirt and show the scars he got defending his country, something that Coriolanus refuses to do. “I’m pretty sure he did show them, didn’t he?” responds one of his political enemies, knowing full well the answer. “No! No, he did not! He didn’t!!” the crowd roars back, now enraged.
A moment here for Brian Cox, who plays Coriolanus’ trusted advisor Menenius. His acting is superb in this crucial supporting role. Early on he is an excitable political flunky, thrilled at the idea that his man has received 2 more wounds in battle. “He had 25,” says Coriolanus’ mother. “Now he has 27!” Menenius replies joyfully. Later, when the crowd has turned, Menenius must then come to the negotiating table with their political enemies and bargain for his man’s very life, pleading “What must he do?” and then having the difficult job of trying to get Coriolanus to do it.
It is Menenius who is sent to beg Coriolanus not to attack Rome, and to suffer the results when it does not go well. This scene was done especially well I thought, as Menenius goes from “Screw all you people, you’re the ones who banished him, you deal with it” to “Ok, I’m the only one he’ll listen to, I will go talk to him” to Coriolanus’ single word dismissal.
I don’t know how to wrap this up, having never seen a different production of this play to compare against. I’m told that the ending is changed, but I couldn’t tell you how. I can tell you that reading the script made me anticipate certain scenes, and that those scenes did not deliver, which is a shame. But there were plenty of moments in the movie that I enjoyed that I did not expect – mostly the individual character evolution, and all the politics.
Here’s how I think I’ll sum it up. This summer I’ll be going to see Coriolanus on Boston Common with my wife and some friends. As is custom I’ll no doubt be asked what the play is about, and be tasked with summarizing the character and plot and pointing out the important bits. I will not point out Coriolanus’ mother (much), nor will I point out the oddly homo-erotic relationship with Aufidius. I will point to Coriolanus’ interactions with the crowd – why exactly he does not want to do what is asked of him, why it works the first time, how his enemies twist his words, and how it does not end well. I think that might have been the most interesting part of the play for me.