By Sovereignty of Nature: Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus


by Stuart Elden

William Shakespeare’s late tragedy Coriolanus is often seen as one of his most political plays. Set in ancient Rome, and based upon the life of the title character as written by Plutarch, the resonances with Shakespeare’s own time have often been remarked upon, especially in terms of the corn riots and resultant popular uprisings in the English Midlands around the time he wrote the play in 1607. The play has often been mined for its political leanings, particularly as it gives voice both to the common people and also their rulers, and has been given readings or appropriations that come down on one side or the other. T.S. Eliot and Bertolt Brecht, for example, both adapted the play to very different purposes in the twentieth century. There are a multitude of political themes however, that go beyond merely a left or right reading: in particular, it is a play about political bodies. These are often the physical bodies of its characters, with language invoking wounds, contagion, animals and a variety of body parts. But also, it is a play about the political body of the polity itself, its inside and outside, the aggressive wars to keep it safe externally, and its internal health and well-being. It indeed raises a spectrum of questions about what it is to contribute to a political community, and who should rule.

Ralph Fiennes’s recent film adaptation is undoubtedly a powerful piece of cinema, with a stellar cast, big-budget production and striking cinematography. Yet its box office performance since opening in late January has been mediocre. It has not been showing in many cinemas, even in London. The screening I went to was largely empty, a great shame, as it is well worth seeing.

Caius Martius is a victorious general, yet he is hated by the people who see him as one of the reasons behind their hunger while the grain stores are full. A group of the people go to a grain depot, where they are confronted by Martius and his soldiers, met with violence and scorn for their claims. In foreign affairs he is more successful, leading a victorious army who defeat the neighbouring Volscians at the city of Corioli. There, he confronts his old enemy and Volscian commander Tullus Aufidius. Martius returns to Rome as a conquering hero, taking the honorific name of Coriolanus. He is persuaded to run for consul, and is elected with the backing of the people. However two tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius, conspire against him, leading to a popular revolt, his conviction for treason and his banishment. Coriolanus goes to the Volscian city of Antium, siding through spite with his enemy Aufidius and together they lead an army against Rome. On hearing of this, various attempts are made to dissuade Coriolanus. While the military and the patrician Meninius fail, a delegation including Coriolanus’s son, wife and mother, Volumnia, succeeds. A treaty is signed with Rome, but Coriolanus is denounced for his betrayal by the Volscians and killed by Aufidius and others.

Fiennes’s film is shot in Serbia and Montenegro, but the largely urban scenes of decay and despair could have been anywhere. Within the film, the setting is said to be ‘a place calling itself Rome’, currently having a border-dispute with the Volscians. The key characters are present, and relatively few changes are made to the plot: certainly none of large import. The same is not the case with the words. Shakespeare’s dialogue works best, surprisingly, with characters not speaking English as a first language, such as the citizens. This works less well with some of the major characters, especially Gerard Butler’s Aufidius, perhaps because the contrast between the contemporary setting and cadence of seventeenth century speech seemed more jarring. There have been significant cuts to the dialogue, with key speeches removed and many others dramatically reduced. While fairly common in adaptations, both for play and screen, this was rather too much. This does not appear to be due to duration—there are some quite long scenes with little or no dialogue. Many of the longer speeches suffer, and some of the political machinations are reduced in favour of military action. In particular, the beginning ‘fable of the belly’ where the patricians and the people discuss the famine affecting the country and the structure of their society is entirely absent. This has implications in particular for the character of Menenius.

Menenius comes out of this film as a largely sympathetic figure, more so than he does from the play. His somewhat ambivalent attitude to the people, where he is critical of them and seeks to defend the status quo against their interests, even though they see him as on their side, is largely removed here. He attempts to mediate between Coriolanus and the tribunes, to tame them all and keep the peace, and when he fails in dissuading Coriolanus from his assault on Rome you have the sense all he has struggled for has collapsed. Brian Cox was excellent in the role, perhaps the best performance of the film. In the film’s greatest liberty with the play’s script, but largely in keeping with its own vision, he is seen slitting his wrists in a late scene.

Fiennes is strong in the title part, portraying a character who is clearly much more at ease in battle than in politics, and entirely uncomfortable in domestic settings. His inability to keep his anger in check is palpable. When Aufidius suggests that “I think he’ll be to Rome/As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it/By sovereignty of nature” it does not seem a stretch. The transition that overtakes him, both in manner and appearance, when he is banished is very effective. There is a certain vagueness to the geography at this point, as the changes clearly showed some time had passed between his exile and his arrival in Antium, but this is in tension with the border dispute said to be taking place earlier in the film. That implied a more proximate location, or at least, a contested front between the sides that appeared largely absent when he is making his way to Antium. The means used to mark the transition at other points in the film, where a motorway is punctuated by road blocks, was more effective. This may be a legacy of the different practices of political geography between the time of the historical character of Coriolanus (fifth century B.C.), the early seventeenth century when Shakespeare wrote the play, and our own.

Some of the cinematic techniques used were very effective. Many of the political speeches were shown as news reports, cutting off as the citizens or others reacted to them. The scenery and setting in a pseudo-Balkans near present was compelling. There were moments that seemed to resonate with a whole range of very recent events, notably the events across the world in 2011’s year of protests, many of which had actually occurred after filming had ended. It is a film very much of our times. Using British Channel 4 news anchor Jon Snow as the herald in news broadcasts was a nice touch at first, but became something of a distraction. Putting some of the political discussions in a TV studio also worked both ways. Having some of the more geopolitical elements—the initial ‘border disputes’ with the Volscians and the invasion of Roman territory by Coriolanus and Aufidius towards the end—playing as newsreel with other characters speaking over them was a potent combination. The battle scenes were worthy of big-budget movies, and made this resolutely not a staged performance transitioned to film. The scale of the production enabled them to break up the first Martius/Aufidius encounter in an effective way.

Two scenes that are unconvincing on the page were similarly awkward in the film. These, unfortunately, are crucial—the shift in the people’s attitude to Coriolanus as tribune, when they first change from their earlier opposition to welcome him to the office, and then are quickly persuaded against; and the scene where Coriolanus’ mother (powerfully played by Vanessa Redgrave) persuades him not to attack Rome. Both seemed to happen a little quickly, and perhaps the space the film gives to the battle scenes might have been well employed here.

In the end, while a terrific visual feast, the film of the play suffered from being caught between two possibilities. It is, on the one hand, a great film with a script that it finds somewhat awkward; on the other it has done substantial violence to the text of the play in the service of cinema. Perhaps though it will send people back to the text. The renowned Arden Shakespeare is about to bring out an edition in its Third Series—an ideal compliment to the film.

Images from Coriolanus, Icon Entertainment, 2011

About the Author:

Stuart Elden is a Professor of Political Geography at Durham University. His interests range across history, politics, philosophy and geography. He has written books on Heidegger, Foucault and Lefebvre, and his most recent book is Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty (University of Minnesota Press, 2009). He has recently completed a manuscript entitled The Birth of Territory. He runs a blog here.