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Coriolanus

15 Aug

Coriolanus – directed by Ralph Fiennes. High Tragedy. A great warrior refuses to be polite for political position in. 123 minutes Color 2012.

★★★★★

Changing People’s Minds is the subject of many of Shakespeare’s plays. What is the outcome of asking people to go against their grain? Hamlet tortures himself with it. Macbeth tries it although he knows it won’t work. Lear’s daughter refuses to do it. Coriolanus is the great examination of this subject. Changing people. And of all his great tragedies it is the one that contains scenes of the most excruciating brilliance. How does someone who is set in his ways, see himself other than what he takes himself to be? How can he see himself at all. “That’s just the way I am,” he will say, not realizing that the real truth is, “That’s just what I do.” Identification with one’s own behavior as The Truth, identification with one’s own emotional habits, identification with the righteousness of one’s conduct and story, obscured by the triumph of its success in certain circumstances, enriches our spectacle of this extraordinary person, Coriolanus, a man made darker of mind by the fabulous rhetoric he can speak to support himself on his path. The text is simple and thorny, the diction plain and incomprehensible because the utterance of internal musings. This is how the mind actually works, the words not so much a way of thinking as an interiority. And it is very difficult for the ear to reach into. I performed Cominius in this play once in my acting life, and it is remarkable how, once reading the script which seems to be written in another language, one gets under it to find how physical it is, and therefore how renderable. Brian Cox, who plays the campaign manager Menenius, is a case in point of an actor who has discovered this, the secret of making all the points so small they reverberate with reality. When he leaves we should miss him more. The ubiquitous Jessica Chastain plays the worried wife, a thankless role we thank no lesser actress is performing. Vanessa Redgrave, an actress who I monstrously dislike, is Volumnia, the mother, the holder of moral suasion for the hero, but her performance is too exquisite for us to see Volumnia’s neurosis as being more hypnotic to Coriolanus and herself than either her maternal care, her passion, or her reason. After all, there really is something wrong with Volumnia. But the performance is simple, direct, and clear. Although there is nothing Mediterranean about her, the same is true of  Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, a part one would suppose him too slight of vitality and physique to play (Richard Burton was notable in the role), but not so. He is marvelous. With his lowering brow, his intention is so resolute, it has no place to go but collapse. His belligerence is massive. He fights with Gerard Butler as Aufidius as though every knife blow were a deep passionate kiss. They both do. Aufidius can kill Coriolanus, but cannot conquer him. He cannot out-best him. The best he can do is hate and adore him. Fiennes brings to the role an unexpected physical solidity, a snobbishness so symphonic you dare not admire it, the assurance of a hero who has his own back. He tends to play many of his big scenes small, and so he should, for the camera, after all, is right at his nostrils. He has a trick of raising his upper left lip in contempt and disgust, which is essentially mugging, and like many English actors he tends to generalize and bray when loud, so the words are lost. And the principal responsibility with filming Shakespeare is that it be detailed, not a word lost – not to whispers and not to shouts. But, for the most part, one leans forward in the wonder of what resides behind Shakespeare’s incredible diction. The power of it to release the human truth of the actor is without competition. It is a very great play, Shakespeare’s only tragedy in the Greek mode, Coriolanus, the drama of  a man of the highest accomplishments and whose valor preserves civilization, being brought down by the rigidity of his own ideals. His is the human tragedy of holding onto the part of you that you take to be yourself, yet your relinquishing of that part to your peril. Not easy watching. But great watching.

 

 
 
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