Ralph Fiennes directs and stars in Shakespeare's Coriolanus.
The Book of James warns darkly about the power of words. "No man can tame the tongue," he writes. "It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison." And in the blood-swaddled figure of Coriolanus, we have a hero whose underestimation of that power proves fatal.
The film is set largely in "a place calling itself Rome," a nod to John Osborne's unproduced adaptation of the play. It's a city caught in the grip of economically driven civil unrest. But Coriolanus is timely for other reasons, too.
In his directorial debut, Ralph Fiennes swaps Hogwarts for modern-day Eastern Europe, snake-nosed Voldemort for hard-nosed warrior Caius Martius. Despising all equivocation, he's the kind of general who threatens to slaughter his own men if courage fails them in battle. He's the ultimate "ultimate fighter," a man regaled with the name "Coriolanus" for his single-handed sortie through the enemy gates of Corioles.
Bullet-headed, with faded white scars trickling across his right cheek like veins on a marble statue, Fiennes is fierce, particularly in the scenes where Coriolanus allows his untameable tongue fully off the leash.
However, as with all Shakespeare's tragic heroes, Coriolanus's greatest strength soon becomes his greatest weakness. His elemental quality, which makes him unstoppable on the battlefield, leaves him mortally ill-suited for the subtler art of politics. He is a machine programmed to do one thing, and one thing only.
Despite his mother's pushy encouragement to run for consul, and the overwhelming support of the Senate, Coriolanus proves unwilling---perhaps even unable---to play the politician. He will not court the public vote. There is nothing he despises more than "the common people," and he refuses to employ his tongue in feigning love for those he believes are foolish, feckless cowards:
What's the matter, you dissentious rogues
That rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
Make yourself scabs? [. . .]
He that will give good words to thee will flatter
It soon becomes apparent that Coriolanus will only "press the flesh" when he's collapsing some poor unfortunate's windpipe during hand-to-hand combat. Unsurprisingly, though unjustly, the people accuse him of being a traitor, and cry for his banishment. To which Coriolanus memorably replies:
You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o' the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, -- I banish you!
All this leaves a dramatic problem at the heart of the play, one that explains why no one has adapted it for the screen until now: How is it possible for an audience to root for a boorish upper-class hero who hates the general public?
And yet, strangely enough, we do. At least he's single-minded, courageous, and spurns flattery. By contrast, the public---and especially their manipulative Tribunes---are fickle, power-hungry, mindlessly resentful of the ruling elite, and overeager to point the finger at others. (Watching the film, incidentally, you get the feeling that Fiennes won't be "occupying" Wall Street any time soon.)
Pity a Bull
But there's another reason our sympathies are provoked. For all his pride, his undisguised contempt of the plebs, and his rash tongue, Coriolanus draws our pity in much the same way we might pity a bull who is asked (on pain of death) to tiptoe through a shop without nudging any of the bone china. Even his sworn enemy, Aufidius, says of his nature: "I must excuse / What cannot be amended." He is, to use Augustine's phrase describing all humanity since the Fall, "not able not to sin."
So as Coriolanus talks his way toward the customary end of all tragic heroes, we find ourselves longing for a better one. Someone who fights for us with superhuman power, yet sympathizes with our weakness. Someone who suffers outside the city gate, yet identifies with all those inside it. Someone who remains silent before his unjust accusers, and bears the blame that is rightfully ours. One, in short, whose love for us is unfeigned.
The film also recalls James's dark warning. A single word, like a spark in a forest, sets the whole world uncontrollably aflame. The tongue "corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell." What would have been the result had Coriolanus learned to martial his indignant tongue earlier? A less interesting film, certainly; but perhaps a more fruitful life.
For those of us who are tempted to view biblical manliness purely in terms of the outspoken, all-conquering warrior, this is salutary stuff. These caricatures of manhood are all very well if they merely lead to the local tattoo parlor. But what if they imply that choosing words carefully is a sign of weakness?