When people talk about great war movies, they usually mean antiwar movies: Paths of Glory, Apocalypse Now, Grand Illusion and Full Metal Jacket, to mention the top four titles on Time Out New York’s 50 Greatest War Films list. You could add All Quiet on the Western Front, The Red Badge of Courage, Gallipoli, The Deer Hunter, Platoon… keep on naming them, and unless you go to World War II (Hitler bad, fighting him good), you’ll find few honored movies that deviate from the standard liberal line denouncing organized carnage between nations — i.e., the military defense of one’s country. A rare recent exception: The Hurt Locker, which pinned an oakleaf cluster of flinty heroism on the chests of American soldiers in Iraq.
(READ: The first review of The Hurt Locker)
Who can look at professional soldiers — the men we send to kill and be killed in our name — without flinching, without sanctifying or demonizing them? None other than William Shakespeare, in The Tragedy of Coriolanus. It is one of the Bard’s least performed plays (tied with Titus Andronicus) and, despite its title, is usually not deemed one of his great tragedies (Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear). And because some moviegoers may not know how to pronounce the title, they should consult the Cole Porter song “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” from Kiss Me, Kate: “If she says your behavior is heinous, / Kick her right in the Coriolanus.” But for all its relative obscurity, it is Shakespeare’s most acute psychological study of a man of war; and Ralph Fiennes, as director and star, has turned it into an urgent, burly action film.
Fiennes appeared as a British mercenary in The Hurt Locker, and for his adaptation of Coriolanus he hired that film’s cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, to shoot the picture in Serbia, whose ravaged landscapes make it an ideal location for a war movie. Fiennes assigned screenwriter John Logan (who completes a 2011 trifecta after his scripts for Rango and Hugo) to condense the text and update it from the fifth century B.C. to modern times. He gave himself the lead role of General Caius Martius, and cast Gerard Butler, once the Spartan hero of 300, as Aufidius, a rival general in the Volscian provinces. All these choices help make the movie the most vivid screen rethinking of a Shakespeare play since Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet 15 years ago.
(READ: our take on the latest Romeo and Juliet adaptation)
TV news channels announce the suspension of civil liberties due to popular unrest in “a place calling itself Rome.” This is not the Eternal City of imperial grandeur, more like a vision of what the Italian capital could become if the nation were to go bankrupt and explode into anarchy. For this tinderbox, General Martius is the match. A vaunted warrior just back from winning the Volscian conflict, and awarded the honorific Coriolanus for subduing the Volscian town of Corioles, Martius orders that grain supplies be denied to the plebeians who would Occupy the Coliseum.
Hard times deserve a hard man, Rome’s own barbarian. As played, or rather waged, by Fiennes, Martius (his very name means war) is brave and ruthless, proud and unyielding, a hero and a monster. In short, a man of war, and no apologies offered or needed: “Let me have war, say I; it exceeds peace as far as day does night; it’s spritely, waking, audible, and full of vent. Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy: mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war’s a destroyer of men.”
(READ: Who wrote Coriolanus—Shakespeare or Anonymous?)
Centuries before mechanized warfare, Shakespeare described Martius as a tank in human form: “when he walks, he moves like an engine, and the ground shrinks before his treading… and his hum is a battery.” Martius’ body, a flesh-map of Rome’s recent colonial forays, is marked with 27 deep wounds, including a battle scar that curves across his cheek like a Riviera corniche. For this soldier, war injuries are medals, or notches on an outlaw’s gun. “Every gash,” he boasts, “was an enemy’s grave.” Martius has only contempt for those Romans who stayed home and fed on the city’s largesse, as Romulus and Remus sucked at the she-wolf’s teat, while he was risking his life to defend them: “Look, sir, my wounds. I got them in my country’s service, when some certain of your brethren roared and ran from th’ noise of our own drums.”
This military stud is a mama’s boy, for Martius has been bred to belligerence by his war-lusting mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), who had much the same impact in shaping his spirit as Mrs. Iselin did on her son Raymond in The Manchurian Candidate. Volumnia says that if she had given birth to a dozen boys she would “rather eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action.” She dresses her son’s wounds as a lover would, and seems more wife to Martius than his own demure spouse Virgilia (Jessica Chastain). At Volumnia’s urging, Martius runs for consul, but can’t summon the honey of campaign oratory. His Senate supporters should have considered a simple verity: that a man sent off to slaughter for his country may not be the man suited to rule when he returns. It takes a different skill set.
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Most Shakespeare protagonists confide their thoughts to the audience in soliloquies. Martius speaks his mind in public, at high pitch and with an excoriating vocabulary. He sneers at one Senator as “this Triton to the minnows” (a zinger worthy of an Elizabethan Rickles) and derides the plebeians as “the beast with many heads.” The rabble stir his patrician scorn: “What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues, that, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, make yourselves scabs?” And when he loses the election and is banished from Rome, he rails against his judges: “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.” He decamps for Volscia, to forge a rebellious alliance with Aufidius, while Volumnia comforts herself with a war-mother’s steely masochism. “Anger’s my meat,” she says. “I sup upon myself, and so shall starve with feeding.”
Redgrave unleashes her most ferocious film performance in decades, as a woman forbidden to rule and so pouring her power into her son. Butler gives full body and heart to the ostensibly more humane Aufidius. And in a role famously played by such take-charge personalities as Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins, Fiennes almost literally breathes fire. The tattoos he sports along with his scars suggest the ornamentation worn by Fiennes as the serial killer Francis Dolarhyde in the 2002 film of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon. (As a Senator says, “This Martius is grown from man to dragon: he has wings; he’s more than a creeping thing.”) Daubing Martius with some of the lurid colors he applied to Dolarhyde and to Anton Goth in Schindler’s List — and, of course, to Voldemort — the actor also invests the character with a Patton-like military majesty. He is a creature to be admired or at least understood.
Making his film directorial debut, Fiennes displays a sure, strong hand for most of the Coriolanus‘ tumultuous two hours. Similar in its brutal spirit to Ian McKellen’s Brownshirt stage and film version of Richard III, the movie renounces the precision of most Shakespeare adaptations for charnel imagery and the occasional shaky-cam flourish. Just as important, Fiennes and his cast yank the 400-year-old dialogue off the page and make it sound vividly conversational; it lives and scalds, sings and singes.
The film has fifth-act problems, as did the play, but Fiennes’ bleak overview should leave receptive viewers feeling daunted and haunted; and that’s just the right takeaway from an action-film tragedy. When people compile a list of the movies most truthful to the valor and pain of war, and the men who wage it, they ought to consider this Coriolanus—for is not a prowar or antiwar statement; it is a portrait from inside a warrior’s mind.