Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Shakespeare Makes You Sorry...For A Huge Asshole

I went to see Ralph Feinnes' film of Coriolanus a few weeks ago, and it left a deep impression on me.

So deep, in fact, that I've decide to write a few posts about the movie and the play's themes. Because this could easily devolve into the kind of three hundred page treatise beloved of English majors and no one else, I'm breaking it up into parts--this post is about the movie and future ones will deal more with abstract concepts from the play itself. I'm sure all six of you are waiting with bated breath. Shut up.

Being a theater major should make me ashamed to admit this, but I haven't read Shakespeare's entire cannon. Oh, sure, the greatest hits--Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet--plus the sonnets to show I was intellectual. But except for skimming thorough the plays to find monologues that weren't Ophelia, Juliet or Hermoine, I was less then conversant with Shakespeare's later, more "cerebral" works. 

What-evs, wench.  Sell more oranges or I'll have your hide.

So it was with a blend of interest, self-embarrassment, and "wonder why he picked this one?" that I trotted off to the theater. I was especially curious because the tiny crumbs of information I had on Coriolanus implied that it was kind of Julius Caesar Lite--all of the pontificating in togas, none of the stabbery or dead rising from the graves visions related by loyal, thigh-wounding wives. 


"Okay, we're all in togas! Pontificate, everybody!"

[Shakespeare actually wrote a number of "Roman" plays, ancient Rome being one of the hot current cultural goings-on, especially if you wanted to look all smart. Many of his audience members would have been familiar, if only in corrupted form, with his probable sources, Plutarch's "Life of Caius Martus Coriolanus", and the Roman historian Livy.]

Roman history in LATIN used to be the coin of the pop culture realm. Now it's like, Kardashians and Jersey Shore. Jesus, Western Civ, what happened to you, man? You used to be cool.

From this... this.

Well, anyway, back to the movie... I came away mightly impressed. This isn't going to be a review in the Roger Ebert sense, more of a "awesome and here's why" essay about the film in general. I knew those thousands of dollars spent on my college drama degree would come in handy someday.



From the modern setting to the rearranging of scenes, the film takes what in the script is of necessity a bunch of people standing around talking (George Bernard Shaw probably saw this play at a deeply impressionable age) and opens it up for commentary on a range of subjects: from modern warfare and the role of a soldier in peace and wartime, to modern communication and how it is manipulated by every single person for their own interests, to how a society tries to reward a soldier and the inevitable, unavoidable frictions that arise between what can be physically offered, the gratitude that should be expressed, and the personality of the soldier himself. In fact, I think...

"Nobody's paying to hear you talk about yourself, wench."

FINE! Geez. Here we go...

A group of utterly fed up commoners are getting ready to stage a big, noisy, and hopefully retweeted protest about the severe food shortages in the city. The commoners have a lot of dialogue here, which is necessary not only for exposition but also to show the audience that these people are not stupid. They are focused, angry, intelligent and ready--or ready-ish--to go down fighting about this issue. They are very aware that they are regarded as smelly, stunted, and semi-self aware pets [at best] or vermin [at worst] by both Rome's military and its senators. They are also factionalizing even during this moment of courage gathering, and it's clear that everybody in the group has very much his or her own ideas about what their ultimate goals should be.

" this one whales or oil?"

The crowd marches off with signs and megaphones, gathering many bystanders along the way, until they meet a closed gate, behind which are several tanks, armed soldiers, and Caius Martius (Feinnes.)

Caius Martus greets the taxpayers.

Caius is a piece of work. This guy is easily among the most dour, prickly, ferociously bad-tempered characters Shakespeare ever wrote. Most tellingly, he is a character with absolutely no sense of humor. None. The man has so many sticks up his ass you could build a log cabin in his colon. His mouth is a ruled line of contempt, his eyes polished stones that will never soften in anything nearing pity. He has no humor, and that means he has no perspective. He doesn't just see the commoners as beneath him, he truly can't see a reason for them to exist. If a person is not a soldier, or a senator that represents the Rome he serves as a soldier, they may as well be treated as the worthless, sneaking rats they are, hunted down and slaughtered to the last man.

"I love my work."

And believe me, he's not shy about expressing his opinion.

This is his version of happy to see you.

"He that will give good words to thee will flatter beneath abhorring. What would you have, you curs, that like nor peace nor war? The one affrights you, the other makes you proud."

And he goes on like that, basically telling the crowd of enraged plebians that everything about their thoughts and actions is worthless, that they care only for the vulgar, change their minds about who they admire every second ["With every minute you do change a mind/And call him noble that was now your hate/Him vile that was your garland."] Since there's no war on at present, he will gladly hand each and every one of these civilians their asses on a platter. Who's first?

( Here's where an audience member or two may start squirming in their seats, perhaps recalling some recent political scandal or reality show that had a formerly respected figure in tatters or truly moronic idiot raised to a trending on Yahoo folk hero.)

Our leading intellectual giants.

Caius may be a colossal dick, but he's also saying what many in the city think but keep prudently to themselves.

The protesters, after some billy clubs, rubber bullets and tear gas, eventally retreat, and Caius (whose reputation as a master soldier and aforsaid colossal dick is known in every part of Rome) is trucked off to his favorite place, a war.

This is a good thing for Caius in more ways then one. Not only is he doing what he's been born and bred to do (more on that later), but he gets to face off against his dearest enemy, Tullus Aufidius, leader of the Volsces (a bebearded Gerard Butler.)

"I borrowed it from Kenneth Branagh."

"I had to lend him my 300 costume in exchange, but I think I got the best of this bargain!"

"They have a leader, Tullus Aufidius, who will put you to't.
I sin in envying his nobility.
And were I any thing but what I am, I would wish me only he."

Ah. Well. More on that later, too.

They took this picture in a photo booth, during that unforgettable summer...

 For now, the point is that Caius is going to throw down with Tullus for the city of Corioles.

It's a pitched battle and both sides suffer heavy losses, until Caius and Tullus finally meet for a hand to hand knife fight to the death. Tullus's men are as loyal as any of Caius's, and his liutenants pull him away at the last minute before Caius can finish him off.

"I hate you more!"
"No, I hate YOU more!"

Oh well, they have won the city, defeated the Volsces, and Rome is ready to bring them home in glory.

Now we're going to visit Caius' home and loved ones--a scene where we first meet the women in Caius Martius's life: his wife, Virgilia, and his mother, Volumina. ( I know, right? Virgila?? VOLUMINA? Shakespeare can be accused of many things, perhaps, but so-subtle-you'll-miss-it names apparently isn't one of them.)

The scene opens with the two Vs discussing Martius's probable successes; Virgilia is praying for her husband's safe and sound return, while Volumina, with a fervor that makes one blink, is just as passionately praying he recieve more "noble wounds of war" before he comes home to be feted by every Roman in a frenzy of gratitude and devotion.

"Just think, my dear, he could be having his arms blown off right now!"

It becomes quite clear during this dialogue that Volumina is a passionate, intelligent woman, a fervent patriot, and has channeled all of her thwarted-- by nature of her gender --feelings and desires into molding her son into the perfect, ultimate soldier. She is not a mad-scientist type, out to create some monster, but a genuinely devoted Roman who has used her one available outlet to its utmost.

"Caius is probably slaughtering someone right this second. Life is sweet."

As played by Vanessa Redgrave, you get the feeling that Volumina has contained lightning in a bottle for so long your hair would stand on end if you got near her. Jessica Chastain, meanwhile, plays Virgilia as a woman prematurely sorrowful, somehow knowing that all this glory leads but to the grave, but has given up saying anything about it.

The Vs are met by Menenius (played by Brian Cox.) He's shown as a family friend, patron and wily old political dog who's come to bring good news of Caius's triumph. It's a scene, despite the easy nature of its players (and good-natured teasing about Virgila's "unreasoning" devotion to her husband by refusing to go out in public until her husband returns) showing a family being set up to be shown to the people of Rome, with Volumina brimming over with eagerness to parade the streets and Virgilia refusing to be made a spectacle.

Caius indeed returns, trailing clouds of glory, and Feinnes stages the scene where he's met by the Senators, Volumina, and Virgilia in a big UN meeting hall type room, lots of onlookers and reporters for flesh-pressing and instant global documentation of Rome's big moment. Caius is greeted and praised by both Menenius and Volumina. He clearly measures everything he does against her approval, and she literally has to turn his attention to his wife, standing right there with his son and used to being invisible.
Did I do good, Mommy? I'm your best boy, aren't I?... oh, hi, honey.

(Caius speaks only one line to Virgilia here: "My gracious silence, hail!" then chastising her for her tears, that says absolute volumes about how family life, his family as a private man, stands in his estimation of his world, and things worthy of his notice. Hint: it's not high. This is in fact the only line he speaks to Virgilia until the end of the show! )

But never mind trivialities. Caius Martus, for his excellent and awesome soldiering, has been granted the title of Caius Martus Coriolanus (I'll use this from now on) and is being nominated, or whatever Romans did, to be a Senator. He's on top of the world, and we all know what that means--there's nowhere to go but down.

What could possibly go wrong?

Coriolanus isn't really too keen on the Senatorship. (He's not keen on anything that requires any kind of...diplomacy. Or decency. Or not calling the people he's presuming to represent vermin.) But as far as Volumina's concerned, this is everything she's ever wanted. ("I have lived/To see inherited my very wishes/And the buildings of my fancy. Only/There's one thing wanting, which I doubt not but/Our Rome will cast upon thee.")

And what Volumina wants, Volumina gets. Again, she's not after personal glory for its own sake. What V wants is Rome--Roman glory, Roman power, Rome bestriding the world--and her beloved avatar, who has served with such distinction thus far, will certainly take the next logical step, the Senatorship. Feinnes stages this scene as one of the only where we see Coriolanus at home, with Volumina tenderly caring for those coveted war wounds, as Virgilia looks on in her long-worn silence. It's clear that this is not the first or hundreth time Coriolanus has heard a speech like this and there's no doubt in anyone's mind what he will decide to do. Even as he lays down in his bed with Virgilia finally able to cuddle up next to him, his eyes are a thousand miles away, a soldier's gaze.

"'s not a good time to talk about redcorating the bathroom?"

Well, the Senatorship's not gonna elect itself! Told that he's got to get out there to the marketplace and press some flesh (and show off those dandy war wounds) Coriolanus responds in his usual charming manner, but is ultimately pursuaded to do so, practically bleeding from the ears in his efforts not start stabbing the plebians (and NOT showing those wounds, thanks very much, no matter who asks.) It's a close squeak, but Coriolanus manages, with Menenius' expert help, to secure the people's backing, and is herded back to the Capitol building to polish off the formalities.

However, all is not smooth sailing. Coriolanus has hardly put himself out to be charming to anyone, and he's aquired some powerful enemies before he even got back --Brutus (Paul Jesson) and Sicinius (James Nesbitt). As brutal and cynical as their names imply and with no love lost for Menenius either, these two long serving Senators aren't about to lose their seats, status, and cushy life to this raging asshole just because he didn't get killed in some war. They're on hand at the marketplace to try and tip the peoples' minds against Coriolanus's selection. They don't manage at first, but the instant Coriolanus leaves it takes them roughly three minutes to convince the people they've been tricked and round up a lovely mob to follow the would-be senator and announce their collective change of heart.
"What do we want?"
"When do we want it?"

Indeed, Coriolanus is still recieving congrats from his soon-to-be peers when the mob converges at the doors, pounding and yelling, howling over and over, "The people are the City!"

Well. If there's any sentence you want to say to Coriolanus to get him in a mellow, diplomatic mood, "The people are the City!" is not among the top ten, or thousand. His handlers' pleas to address the mob's challenge is met with predictable scorn, as he points out that it's no secret that he despises each and every one of them. B and S say that wasn't quite as widely known as it has now become (thanks to them) and he'd better clarify his position before they stampede the place.

It takes a lot of persuading (mostly from Volumina, natch)

"Now, you're going to march in there and apologize!"
"But mommy..."

but Coriolanus finally agrees to speak to the people again.

"Okay, Corny, you're beautiful. Just get out there, spew a little bullshit, and you're golden."

This is set up as a Face the Nation type talk show, with the crowd prepped beforehand by B and S (and some of the original mob from the beginning of the film) to howl Coriolanus down the minute he tries to speak. Two seconds of that and C reacts as planned, cursing the audience as worthless scum, all caught and broadcast live. The enraged audience, insulted and egged on by the ringers, promptly starts crying out for his execution (wow!); and the panicked Senate, terrified of losing all control, manages to shoot themselves in the foot by not only not defending their former war hero but banishing him from Rome!
Gee, and it was going so smoothly up until now...

This is, ironically, the best thing that's happened to Coriolanus since he came back. He doesn't fit in anywhere, to say the least, and now he can spend all his time nurturing his grivances and rage, rather than flattering idiots for something he never really wanted. Without a word, tellingly, to his wife, mother, or child, he stalks out of Rome to hone his vengance. But not alone. He's got plans.

(Feinne's depiction of C, beard sprouted, grubby, tramping the recently battered countryside, is quite obviously a dig at society's treatment of its veterans. )

"I grew it so I'd have something to hate on my trip."

Coriolanus knows exactly where he's headed, however. He and Tullus are the closest thing either man has to a--not friend, but peer. If Rome doesn't want Coriolanus, Coriolanus will not suffer Rome to stand, and who better to tempt with such a prize the the man who understands him best?

C may not win any prizes for empathy or understanding, but he's got Tullus's number. When he shows up at T's camp it's the closest to humble he will ever get. He walks in, lays down his only weapon (a knife) and says Tullus can do him one of two favors: either help him burn Rome to the ground, or kill him right here. Either way will be an honorable way to go out. Feinnes plays this scene with a kind of bewilderment--a man who has spent his life being an object suddenly having to direct himself. He honestly has no idea if this will work.

", ya wanna get coffee sometime?"

And Tullus, after a moment...

leaps at the chance. Embraces him, pours out the milk of human kindness, and basically says yep, you bet--Rome will be reduced to cinders, can't wait to help. Just as C expected, but not as Tullus's men did. Even for the chance to win Rome, they never expected to see their leader almost giggling like a girl with her crush. But it's not just that. Tullus has plans too.

"You LIKE him!"
"I do not!"
"You do so!"
"Do not!"
"Do so!"

News doesn't take long to get back to the Senators--tales of whole towns burned and razed have a way of spreading. Realizing what they have unleashed against themselves, the Senate, in a panic, sends envoys to sue for peace, but really, as Menenius points out, have they been paying attention at all to who they're dealing with? After yet another of Coriolanus's lieutenants returns with the announcement that his former leader will not hear a word, Brutus and Sicinius beg Menenius to try to make Coriolanus see reason. Menenius knows it's hopeless, but at the end, he's a Roman, too--he drags his weary bones to sue for peace to Coriolanus's campsite.

I'm totally open to your proposal.

Menenius arrives on his hopeless mission, to find Coriolanus the leader of, basically, a cult. He's surrounded by young men, barely out of their teens, each with a closely cropped head and dragon tattoo on the back of his neck, clearly in a frenzy of adoration and worship for this semi-mythical figure they've no doubt grown up hearing about. (The dragon is in reference to Coriolanus's new description of himself, a "lonely dragon.")

"I can pencil you in between the tattoo orgy and the bonfire, or you can come back next week."

(Menenius isn't the only one to note this craziness and fear it--Tullus and his right hand man are on hand too, watching. Tullus assures his buddy that all this is only to achieve what he's always wanted--torching Rome--and he's going to dump Coriolanus on his ass the second that is accomplished. So much for keeping your enemies closer...)

"Big jerk thinks he can sign my yearbook 'Love, C' and then just IGNORE ME?? He is gonna pay!"

The meet goes about as well as M perceived it would, and he leaves with his stomach full of the leaden realization that every last stick and stone of Rome is doomed. If he ever had any hope, it's gone now. He tells B and S so when he arrives back at the neutral zone:

"This Martius is grown from man to dragon. He has wings; he's more than a creeping thing."

Having said his dispairing piece, Menenius leaves bewildered, terrified Brutus and Sicinius and goes and finds a quiet spot. Unable to watch Rome burn, he slits his wrists and throat. Cox's bulk, sagging slowly to the ground as he accepts the fate of his world, says volumes.

"And yesterday it all seemed to be going so well!"

Out of options, Rome turns to their last of last hopes: Coriolanus's family. Volumina, Virgilia, and his son are escorted--none too respectfully--to C's presence, where there's a long and extraordinary scene. Volumina is her usual brilliant and persuasive self, and Virgilia rises to the occasion too. What both fail to note at the beginning of the scene is that Coriolanus, having finally achieved the purity and revenge he has wanted all his life, is beginning to show feet of all too human clay.

"So listen, I went ahead and redecorated the bathroom."

He misses them. He misses the vestiges of humanity he cast off in banishment. He grits his teeth, forbids them to mention the saving of the city--but come on. He's Rome's soldier, not his own. Personal vengance can't bring satisfaction to an object. A weapon can't direct itself. Without his mother, (and surprisingly) his wife as guides, Coriolanus is wavering, shaken in their presence.

Volumina points out that they will not be spared--a frenzy of soldiers in a bloodlust won't be swayed by niceties like who these women are related to. If they're lucky, they'll be raped and murdered before having to watch Rome burn. And even if Coriolanus wins the day, his name (and his purity) will be blackened, spit on--synonymous with the traitor he was accused of being in the first place.

"In retrospect,  I may have been a little hard on you, son."

But it's when C's nameless son speaks his only line: "I'll run away 'till I am bigger, but then I'll fight", that Coriolanus shows the final crack in his facade. The first part of the line is funny, but the second isn't. In it he sees a hopeless circle of vengance for vengance, burning cities and razed fields, with no end in sight. Purity doesn't lead to anything.

After a few more exchanges, he breaks. He agrees to a treaty between the Volces and Rome, and a relieved citizenry welcomes a triumphant Volumina into the Capitol, the patroness and savior of the city. Looks like V got what she wanted. And if she had to kinda betray her son to do it, well... he was going to torch Rome. That couldn't be allowed, really.

"Finally, I get my own hat!"

But Coriolanus isn't there to witness his mother's triumph. He knows there's only one ending for a soldier out of time, a soldier without wars. He heads straight to the crossroads where Tullus is waiting, obstensibly to bring the terms of the treaty for signing, but he's really going to his death and knows it.

The man is gone, and lonely dragon back full force. Tullus plays his part, gives him an earful of angry, accusing him of betraying both him and his standards as a soldier. It doesn't hit the mark C needs until Tullus calls him "boy of tears."

Well, that's what he was waiting for. Bellowing his defiance of any and all that doubt what he's achieved, C cries out

" Cut me to pieces, Volsces. Men and lads,
Stain all your edges on me. Boy? False hound!
If you have writ your annals true, 'tis there
That, like an eagle in a dovecote,I
Fluttered your Volscians in Corioles.
Alone I did it. Boy?"

And takes on the whole group of Tullus's men. He holds his own pretty well, leaving nasty wounds on more then one, but it's five against one, and finally Caius Martius Coriolanus falls, raging to the end. His body, eyes staring into the nothingness he sought, is tossed roughly into the back of a truck, like so much trash, and that's the end.

How about that, huh?

So who the hell's the audience for this film, anyway? Drama nerds, sure, but what about a more general population?

Many veterans and active military members would appreciate it for its candor and ruthless portrayals of the loneliness of being a soldier and the fury engendered by trying to negotiate a corrupt civilian society. The war scenes may trigger major flashbacks--they're like many in recent films, gritty and urban, with exhausted, filthy bands of men roaming in packs trying to pick each other off, but there's a flatness to the scenes that refuses to glamorize the setting or what they're doing.

But other audiences will find much to admire too--the performances are great (especially Brian Cox, who's cynical until the very last minute, when it cannot possibly do him any good), and as usual, Shakespeare's tale of a long ago time and place resonates with thoroughly modern concerns about relativity of purposes, the seemingly inherent corruption of society, and the difficulty of finding a real direction to one's life in it. It might not be the most comfortable couple of hours you've ever spent, but you won't come out bored. And you'll have a lot to talk and think about.

This is a tight, lean production, of necessity stripped down to tell the story of the indelible difference between a man and a soldier, the impossibility of going back to the former from the latter, and how the thanks of a grateful nation, no matter how sincere, are nothing next to mechanations, relativity, clashing interests, and the howling emptiness of a heart that's been honed to fine and killing point. Such hearts don't deal in reasons. They deal in war. And when they come home, war is still their dealing.


  1. Oh, hey now. What'd 'Pineapple Express' ever do to you?

    ; )

  2. That's all you got out of it? Dick.

  3. Ooh, is Seth Rogen in this movie too? :P

    Sounds like a pretty damn good movie/play, I'll have to check it out :)

  4. Good stuff, keep it coming!

    *Sips soda, munches popcorn*