Ralph Fiennes would be deserving of congratulations for bringing Coriolanus to the silver screen even if the film were less good than it is. This is among the least accessible of Shakespeare’s plays to a modern audience, because it deals with a subject, honor, which we hardly understand anymore. Mr. Fiennes opens that closed subject up a little by making his movie version of the play into a more general drama of particularity: that is, of the now also-neglected but still vitally important question of loyalty and how far we may be justified in showing it or withholding it from individuals and groups that make demands on us that compete with universal principles as guides to behavior. The result is a satisfying portrait of a modern version of such a binary world, divided into the honorable and the dishonorable, the loyal and the disloyal, the noble and the ignoble, but one that would have been recognizable to Shakespeare himself.
On a rather simple level, the Roman general Caius Martius (Mr. Fiennes) who is subsequently given the title “Coriolanus” after a city of the rival Volscians he has conquered, simply makes the wrong choice of principles. For him honor — that is, his own personal honor — takes the place of a universal code. Well, anybody can tell you what’s wrong with that. A code that is personal to oneself is no code at all. It is in effect a way of saying that whatever I do is honorable because I do it. Thus, by elevating his own sense of honor far above its proper sphere, Coriolanus ends by committing the chief and unforgivable sin against any honorable code and betraying his country, as well as many subsidiary loyalties, when in a fit of pique against the fickle common people of Rome who have rejected him, he goes to join his and Rome’s greatest enemy, the Volscian Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), in an attack on his own city.
Yet he wouldn’t be a Shakespearean hero if he did not have at least a few things going for him and some common ground on which to win the sympathy of the audience. Establishing this sympathy with an honor culture like that of Elizabethan England would have been a comparatively easy thing to do, but Mr. Fiennes has faced and surmounted a tougher challenge in updating the play’s setting to today in a Balkan-style conflict (much of the filming was done in Serbia) between rival warlords — not at all an inappropriate analogy to the period of Roman history being presented — and by making his hero at least partly the victim of the media. Thus he also reminds us of the extent to which the man of honor, or anyone pretending to a superiority of mind or character, is anathema to the media merely as such. They depend on a radical leveling that is simply incompatible with honor and that requires them to pull down to their level, very much as Shakespeare shows the Roman mob doing in his play, anyone with any claim to real distinction.
In the film, the two tribunes, Brutus (Paul Jesson) and Sicinius (James Nesbitt) still have their role to play in Coriolanus’s downfall, and very well they play it. Brian Cox is likewise terrific as Menenius, the slick politician who knows how to manipulate a crowd but who also shows a just appreciation of greatness. But the centrality to this play (as to Julius Caesar) of the violently unstable mob of the undistinguished and indistinguishable is related to the behavior of the media culture of our own time. This is done partly through the presence in this re-imagined Rome of TV news and talk shows (the “Fidelis” network is a nice touch) on which Coriolanus is expected to come down off his pedestal and look and behave like everyone else, and partly through the familiarity of the techniques they use to a media savvy audience of today.
When, for instance, Coriolanus responds to his banishment with the great and thunderous rejoinder: “I banish you,” the movie puts the dramatic moment in front of live television cameras, as a sudden outburst on what is meant to be a typical talking-heads interview show familiar to us from today’s media. This immediately makes the disastrous meaning of the speech clear to us. The hero has irrevocably cut himself off not only from the familial and Roman social context that gives his honor its meaning but also from a whole universe of public discourse which depends, as the media always does depend, on a rough social equality and a denial of any authority asserted too vigorously outside the collective conversation.
The movie allows us to watch this happening from a slightly detached point of view: not, that is, exactly as Romans — for whom it would have looked, I imagine, rather like Howard Dean’s scream did to people in 2004, or perhaps the attempted ostracism of Rush Limbaugh from polite media society after his recent “gaffe” concerning Miss Sandra Fluke — but rather as the denizens of a different media culture suddenly confronted by something utterly alien yet the same. Perhaps then, too, we can even see something of ourselves in the Roman eagerness to tear down their hero. Indeed, the problem with the movie is that we may be tempted to see a little too much of ourselves in it. Or so I judge from the number of critical responses to it that mention anachronistic ideas like the “macho” or the “homoerotic” elements it supposedly puts on display.
Words like these were not only unknown to Shakespeare, but they have a very particular social and intellectual context in our own time that makes them not match up very well with Shakespearean interests and concerns. Mr. Fiennes himself is not guilty of this fault, at least not for the most part, admirably walking the very narrow line between a comprehensible updating of the play and a faithful Shakespearean rendering of its larger truths. He only wobbles, I think, in adding just too much of a sexual undertone to the relationship between Coriolanus and his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and his great enemy turned friend Aufidius. Both of these relationships are interesting enough and, I think, more interesting, without their sexual subtext — which, to be sure, modern audiences have come to expect — than with it.
As a result, this is only a version of Shakespeare, as all films of his plays must be, and one that leaves out pretty much the whole dimension of civic responsibility and patriotism that would have been so important to Shakespeare. The tension between the honorable Coriolanus and the dishonorable rabble of Rome (repeated among that of the Volscians) is only instrumental in bringing about the banishment and eventually the death of Coriolanus and is not of much interest in its own right. We do not come away from the film asking ourselves what would surely have been Shakespearean questions about the viability of democracy itself. But then that would have been too great a reach for a modern audience. And the doubts it raises against the all-pervasive media are not at all a bad stand-in for such questions. The conclusions of both play and film, at any rate, return a resounding denial of Coriolanus’s hope, or assumption, that “There is a world elsewhere.”