The timeless power of the Bard

Coriolanus won’t tell us much about contemporary politics but it does reveal Shakespeare’s take on the human condition.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

Topics Politics

The recent flurry of Dickens TV adaptations was accompanied by discussions concerning the relevance that the Victorian novelist’s work bears in these hard times of economic strife. For some commentators, it seems, the quality of his prose simply isn’t enough to justify another outing. In similar fashion, Ralph Fiennes’ film version of Shakespeare’s lesser known tragedy, Coriolanus, has been mercilessly interpreted as a commentary upon our own political climate.

The play’s eponymous hero, played by Fiennes himself, is a decorated Roman general whose transition into politics spells his undoing. Following another successful military campaign, Coriolanus is urged by his friend Menenius (Brian Cox) and his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) to take up the role of consul. He reluctantly accepts and his campaign is built on the image of him as a guardian of Rome. However, using his evident distaste for the common man against him, Plebian detractors insist upon Coriolanus’ expulsion from the city. Feeling lost and betrayed, the despondent soldier decides to take up with an old enemy in order to exact his revenge on the republic. And right from the off, many have jumped to comment on what this seventeenth-century drama has to say about contemporary politics.

Critics, bloggers and even the actors themselves have suggested the piece has great resonance with everything from England’s August riots to the Arab Spring. Even the decision to film in Serbia – which Fiennes has since admitted was for purely financial reasons – has been interpreted as a nod to parallels between the Kosovo War and the clashes between Rome and the Volscian rebels that the play dramatises. Of course, the scenes which denote urban warfare and political demonstration will inescapably put one in mind of the conflicts of today, yet this film doesn’t waste time making tenuous comparisons.

Virginia Woolf once wrote that ‘fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly… to life at all four corners’, and Fiennes reinterprets his source material without sacrificing the ethereal uniqueness of the text. Shakespeare’s plays, as Woolf put it, ‘seem to hang there complete by themselves’ and, while he leaves room for a political reading of Coriolanus, Fiennes allows the words to stand alone and unmediated.

Fiennes himself is sinister, if occasionally hammy, in the lead role, while Redgrave’s Volumnia is stern and astute. This being Fiennes directorial debut, he takes few stylistic risks, but the no-frills hand-held camera work is effective in bringing the performances to life. Coriolanus saw Shakespeare eschew lengthy soliloquies, yet the few which are included here are stunningly captured, with plain, blurry close-ups. The overall look is gritty, washed out, and lends well to the smouldering intensity of the play.

The use of a modern setting is a pretty familiar technique in most contemporary film adaptations of Shakespeare, and in many ways this speaks to the self-contained richness of the Bard’s work. Fiennes, along with many directors before him, recognises that period costume and authentic historical details can often only distract us from the drama itself, and the setting of this adaptation is rather ambiguous. Described in the titles as ‘A place calling itself Rome’, it is a city in which Englishmen, Irishmen, Scotsmen and Siberians smoke cigarettes, wear jeans and converse in iambic pentameter. Yet this only adds to the otherworldly and timeless aura of the film. Indeed, the few moments in which the modern world as we know it creeps in, such as when high-profile British newsreader Jon Snow cameos as a news reporter, are difficult, out of place and break the spell of it all.

Coriolanus is far from a seamless adaptation but it at least understands the timeless power of the Bard. Shakespeare undoubtedly looked to comment upon his own times and he may well have something to say about our own, but any attempt forcefully to align his narratives with modern concerns will only obscure his insight. Fiennes takes a few liberties, and necessarily reduces the action to a lean two hours, but his refusal shamelessly to appropriate the material is to be applauded.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

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Topics Politics


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