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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Coriolanus



CORIOLANUS (Three and a Half Stars)

U.K.: Ralph Fiennes, 2011 (The Weinstein Company/Anchor Bay)“Oh mother, mother!

What have you done? Behold, the heavens do ope,

The Gods look down, and this unnatural scene,

They laugh at!”

Coriolanus,  from the play by William Shakespeare

Here we have another film treasure taken from the vast and wonderful dramaturgy of William Shakespeare, the greatest playwright who ever lived: “Coriolanus,” bitter, bleak, murderous play of the hell of warfare, of deadly comrades in arms, of the masses and the few, of the ties of blood and the evils of politics — now made into a movie set in the age of bombs and the land of ethnic cleansing (Serbia), directed by and starring, in the title role, that fine melancholy actor Ralph Fiennes, with a performance so extraordinary by Vanessa Redgrave, as Volumnia, the ultimate warrior‘s mother, that it takes your breath away to watch her, and to hear her — as it must have staggered Fiennes while he watched and directed and acted with her, and said the words above, with feeling.

Actually, for me, Will Shakespeare was not only the greatest playwright who ever wrote a speech or drew a breath, he was also the greatest of  movie writers, even though he penned his scripts four centuries before the cinema was invented. (Name another writer, from whom so much great cinema has flowed. (Not screenwriters like Ben Hecht, Jacques Prevert or Billy Wilder. Not novelists like Charles Dickens. Ah well, enough of that game.) As a source of cinema, Shakespeare is unrivalled and in Coriolanus, he is as well. It’s one of his later, darker plays — like Troilus and Cressida or the famous tragedies. Not in the same league as Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello or King Lear, but, in a way, as scary and bloody and profound as any of them. More Brechtian maybe, it’s the story of a brave and stubborn Roman career soldier, Caius Martius aka Coriolanus, who is forced onto the stage of politics and destroyed by it, and ruined also by his own fierce intractable nature, and the one soft part of his heart — because he dislikes the masses and cannot help it, and because he loves his mother and cannot help that either.

Shakespeare’s plays can make superb movies, like this one, not only because they’re so teeming with ideas and overflowing with poetry and bursting with life, but because in many ways, they are already movies, ready made — longer perhaps than the average film, but richer and more wondrous too. Fiennes’ Coriolanus — shot in modern clothes with modern weaponry in the recently war-torn city of Belgrade, Serbia , with cable TV newspeople acting as narrator or chorus, and cell phones everywhere — is the kind of modernization I am usually inclined against. Shakespeare with guns never seems to work as well as Shakespeare with swords. Or spears. The first time I saw Baz Luhrmann‘s street gang version of “Romeo and Juliet,” I disliked it. But I was wrong. When you use Shakespeare’s words, the speeches, the people — and you have them mostly here — then you’ve set the table for something grand: a feast of poetry, a feast of humanity, a feast of soul and flesh and beating heart.

And, in Coriolanus, a feast of blood. This is a play of murder, and a movie of killers. Coriolanus is the dread-soaked tale of an ill-fated warrior, who wins battles for Rome against the attacking Volscians, fighting oman people, many of whom he hates. He is then d for Roman consul by his wily friend Menenius (Brian Cox) and his warrior’s mother Volumnia (Redgrave), and outwitted by two rascally demagogic tribunes, Brutus (Paul Jesson) and Sicinius (James Nesbitt) and their radical too-easily-led mobs. Exiled,  the sinewy, bullet-headed bald-shaven Coriolanus, seems to take it stoically, but we can feel the pain reeking from him. He shows up, now with beard and shaggy hair, in the den of the Volscians and of his great brutal rival Aufidius (Gerard Butler). And, SPOILER ALERT be damned, he goes over to the enemy, leads the Volscian troops to victory over his old home city, and then, on the brink of sour revenge, becomes the target of one of the most moving and terrifying speeches a stage mother ever gave — in an acting performance by Redgrave worthy of every award from the Oscar on down. (A pity. She’ll probably never play a better part or scene in a greater role than this.)

The secret of playing Shakespeare, at least in our day, in a more intimate medium like film, is to say the speeches so the poetry shines through and yet say them so naturalistically that the meaning and the humanity come out as well. This is no easy task, but for any good actor, it’s a  joyous one. The stage around them can be as packed or as bare as you like. (Will Shakespeare’s Globe Theater had little scenery but rich costumes.) Here, Fiennes’ Coriolanus-the-movie looks so bleak, so gray, and so bloody — but I didn’t care about that slightly monotonous landscape, because the words were there. And the actors: Fiennes and Redgrave and Cox and Jessica Chastain (as Coriolanus’ pretty wife, Virgilia) and all the others, some English, some Serbian, some from other lands. Shakespeare belongs to them all, to all the world.

Fiennes wanted to preserve his own stage performance of a decade ago, but he also wanted, I’m sure, to share with us his actor’s love of the work of the best of all playwrights, the greatest comical-tragical-historical wordsmith of them all: Bill Shakespeare. What snobbish ass truly thinks the Earl of Oxford, or any other pampered aristocrat in a library wrote those plays? They were written by a man who lived in the theatre, among other actors, who worked before audiences — and anyone who sullies his name or authorship (like the fools behind Anonymous) deserves to be caught on stage without his lines, or better, trapped between a real Coriolanus and Aufidius, their blades or AK47s high and gory, words spitting like flames in the gray cold heavy air.

I used to get angry when I would read those few bad or venomous or sarcastic jibes by “critics” aimed at Shakespeare or his authorship or his qualities as a playwright, hurled or lobbed by iconoclasts from George Bernard Shaw on down. Now I just feel sorry for the prankish empty-heads (except for drama critic Shaw and his blind spot) who make ‘em. I say one thing: More Shakespeare on film, even more. More Midsummer Night’s Dreams, more Hamlets, more Tempests, more Romeos and Juliets, more Cleopatras, more Falstaffs, more Iagos and Othellos, and more Coriolanuses and Volumnias — though Fiennes and Redgrave will be hard to top. The settings modern or in period, or bare bones, or whatever way you will. The flood of words and poetry and humanity is, we know by now, inexhaustible. All the world’s a stage, or a movie set, and all the men and women merely players. (Merely?) The play should never end, the players never bow and exit (stage left, pursued by a bear), the curtain always rise and fall and rise again, ina multiplex as well as the Globe.. Ah drama, comedy, tragedy! The stage, the screen: they never gave us better. Never will.

Extras: Commentary by Ralph Fiennes; “Making Of” Documentary.




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5 Responses to “Wilmington on DVDs. Coriolanus”

  1. William Ray says:

    “What snobbish ass truly thinks the Earl of Oxford, or any other pampered aristocrat in a library wrote those plays? They were written by a man who lived in the theatre, among other actors, who worked before audiences — and anyone who sullies his name or authorship (like the fools behind Anonymous) deserves to be caught on stage without his lines, or better, trapped between a real Coriolanus and Aufidius, their blades or AK47s high and gory, words spitting like flames in the gray cold heavy air.”

    Sorry brother, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, “lived in the theatre” (from the age of seven, with his father’s court troupe, including Will Somer, whom he immortalized as Yorick in Hamlet). “Among other actors” (he was friends with the greats, including Burbage, Tarleton, Armin, and others, and was himself considered the greatest comic actor at Court of his time). “Who worked before audiences” (managing acting companies at court and in public after he returned from Italy in 1576. He sent out several companies during the Spanish Armada threat of invasion, to unite the population as Englishmen, with what became the History plays in the 1590’s.)

    So you speak from ignorance and bias. I warmly suggest you study up more on the facts, and you will have a proper focus for your admiration. Not the money-lender whose name (Shakspere) made him the perfect posthumous counterfeit for de Vere’s nom de plume. Which explains that while no one anywhere, including his own family, considered Shakspere a writer, once dead, the wheels could turn to use his name for an identity-switch. Why? de Vere was a political grenade, to be buried if his works could be attributed elsewhere. They were, and the First Folio was the ambiguous document that did the deed, while containing the information unambiguously identifying the true author.

    It was left to the future to find and restore for de Vere his justifiable honor and fame. The entire meaning of Hamlet’s dying words: “Horatio, I am dead; Thou liv’st. Report me and my cause aright/ To the unsatisfied.”

    Just read a few good books and you can set yourself right and enjoy the plays ten times more, for knowing where and from whom they truly came. [Mike A’Dair, Four Essays on the Shakespeare Authorship Question; Katherine Chiljan, Shakespeare Suppressed; Mark Anderson, Shakespeare By Another Name]

    I have hope for you,
    William Ray

  2. Greg Koch says:

    I agree with Ray and many other honorable members of society who believe “Bill Shakespeare” could not even write his own name! Scholars have not only proved beyond any doubt the Stratford man was a hoax, but also proved he was a small time thug (see Smithsonian Magazine, et al). I should spare you the countless reasons why the Stratford “Shaksper” possessed none of the characteristics required to be the real playwright – which have been compiled from the plays themselves into an accurate profile of the playwright. However, certainly, our beloved diamond jubilee QE2, and Her minions, continue to obfuscate and support of the fool from Avon. That should not be overlooked that HRH continues to back the fraud. Far more interesting to understand why. Which attracts more revenue – and bees – worldwide? An ignorant, unknown commoner from a little village near an unimportant river? Or, a super-rich young kid whose family possessed more property in England than Elizabeth I, whose rank allowed complete access to Elizabeth’s court plus the privilege to put on performances about flawed royals and nobles – and whose biography exceeds a thousand corollaries!

  3. Tom Reedy says:

    Sorry, but after Oxford the 16th died his troupe was disbanded and Oxford the 17th had no company until he was 30. He never managed any acting companies at court or in public, except in the febrile imaginations of Oxfordians. If BS was legal tender, William Ray, et al, would be richer than Bill Gates. Fortunately most people can tell the difference between reality and fantasy and aren’t taken in by their adolescent comic-book power fantasies.

  4. Greg Koch says:

    Uh, Tom, acting troupes were a farthing a dozen and only used when royalty dropped by. You act as though it was a Showstopper. Do you honestly believe it was important to the life of a super rich earl? Your trouble seems to be in perceiving exactly what characteristics the playwright possessed to have composed the greatest plays in history. You must be in a fantasy world to believe the ignorant man from Stratford composed anything.

  5. Tom Reedy says:

    > Uh, Tom, acting troupes were a farthing a dozen and only used when royalty dropped by.

    You really should read more than Oxfordian propaganda.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon