As I quoted John Steinbeck earlier, before I left for Montreal, “Trips begin before they start.” And now TIFF has begun with a BANG! as I got to see a pre-TIFF screening of “Coriolanus,” which is the great Ralph Fiennes directorial debut as well as perhaps the best he’s ever been as an actor, which is saying A LOT .
As Coriolanus, himself, one of Shakespeare’s most troublesome heroes or anti-heroes or a character who heretofore has been virtually un-classifiable as well as over-looked. In doing all this re-imagining so magnificently, Fiennes has created his own masterpiece. It’s the absolute pinnacle of his career as an actor, and he’s the pretty damn good first time director, too!
Shakespeare’s great leading men were all supposed to be characters who had ONE tragic flaw, and Coriolanus’ was that he was supposedly “too proud.” And that has been the long and the short of it for centuries. Until now.
Ralph Fiennes has brilliantly re-thought and re-configured this tragedy and made it something very, very modern and timely and something that is definitive and totally his own. It’s an overwhelming Shakespearean as well as cinematic achievement.
In setting it in some kind of war-torn Eastern Europe setting -Bosnia? Serbia? and loading the first half hour up with almost unbearably unwatchable bloodshed, explosion, bombs, etc., he effectively illustrates that THIS is what Coriolanus can do. Make war. Kill people. Destroy every thing in his path. He’s the ultimate adrenaline junkie, like Jeremy Renner’s indelible soldier/killer character in “The Hurt Locker.”
And after that bloody initial first section of the film, which I thought was a tad overdone and overlong and not Shakespearean at all, and goes on forever, “Coriolanus” settles down to become what I have always believed it to be, Shakespeare’s only play about MOM.
Whether this is a veiled portrait of his own mother, Mary Arden, who was a staunch Catholic, in the Elizabethan days, when that meant death, Volumnia, always a good part, to my mind, here in the hands of the great Vanessa Redgrave, becomes one of Shakespeare’s most frightening and powerful villianesses. She practically tops Lady Macbeth here in that she’s Coriolanus’ MOM. The all-powerful, passive-aggressive military MOM, she is as blood-thirsty and dangerous as any she-wolf-hound and as any of Shakespeare’s great bad gals.
Redgrave’s chilling performance vaults Volumnia into the ranks of one of the best characters that Shakespeare ever wrote, simply and forever.
And as she utters the foulest and most outrageous of Shakespeare’s dialogue, she is ever-so elegant and o so charming and as sweet as apple crumble pie. She’s utterly, completely reasonable. Every inch a lady. She’s never a shrew, and she’s FRIGHTENING!
Shakespeare never really wrote about the topic of MOM so completely before or after. And Coriolanus, as Ralph Fiennes’ plays him so persuasively, is one sick puppy. A military one-man killing machine, he cannot deal with people or politics and gets ousted as consul by the people of Rome in mere hours or days after he is elected, because he simply can’t speak to them. He refuses to show them his wounds, literally, and the Roman rabble turns on him, in a split second and he is ousted from his home, his family, his country and labeled a traitor, simply because in modern terms, he has no social skills whatsoever.
He’s a great soldier, a great general, but all he can do is fight, fight, fight. He’s not humble about anything. And when the battle is over, he can’t stop fighting, with everyone around him, until the only person he has left to fight with is himself. As Fiennes’ character begins to lose it you realize that he is playing a self-destructive, mentally ill man. A paranoid, certainly. A schizophrenic, yes, perhaps.
But Fiennes’ in his interpretation, places all the blame for Fiennes’ descent into hell, squarely on the broad shoulders of MOM, Vanessa. And Ms. Redgrave, now well into her later years, shows time does not stop for genius, as she lays her great actress’ s hands on Volumnia and shakes her and inflates her, until she grows and grows in to this GIANTESS of all-devouring, but socially sweet matron/dragon. She scares even as she charms, and her ultimate scene, the scene where outside the walls of Rome, she pleads for her city and for her vengeful, bat-shit crazy, beautiful son to come back to her. Come back to Rome! and Shakespeare and Fiennes has her kneeling over and over again pleading, cajoling, manipulating, begging, and that scene alone, says Oscar! Oscar! Oscar!
Redgrave also speaks Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter as if it were conversational speech. Another achievement. And since Volumnia’s lines and character are not as well-known as, say Lady Macbeth, every word she utters, every moment she has, seems absolutely FRESH.
I think one of the greatnesses of this instant classic of film, is that it redefines both Coriolanus and Volumnia as two of Shakespeare’s greatest characters, though until now they never appeared as such. The over-possesive mother and the wounded, crazy child.
Coriolanus’ problem was not that he was “too Proud”. It was his mother!
And Redgrave may very certainly be looking at another Oscar here. It’s going to be hard for any of the other ladies, who may be nominated as Best Supporting Actress(though in this film, she’s really the co-lead) to come up to ,or top this towering actress’ career-capping achievement in “Coriolanus.”
So what Fiennes has done is make this not a play about a patrician soldier, a play, or rather, a film about a play about a man at war with himself, and actually, a film about a man at war with his mother.
A mother who completely mis-reads and over-pushes and over-dominates her war-talented son. Fiennes and Redgrave do a memorable pas-de-deux here on Shakespeare’s only really stab at motherhood, literally. And stab at it, he does.
And with Harvey Weinstein as producer, you can be pretty sure both Fiennes and Redgrave are going to the Oscar dance this year. And Redgrave is certainly now the front-runner in her category. And how! And I hope she staggering achievement as Volumnia doesn’t overwhelm Fiennes’ Oscar chances as Best Actor. Or Best Director. Or both. It could. And it might. And his expert Voldemort in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt.2” may hurt him here. Or help him. It certianly could be confusing to Oscar voters. Maybe he’ll be nominated for BOTH performances!
Jessica Chastain as Coriolanus’ weepy, weak wife has virtually nothing to do except cry. And Gerard Butler is OK, but not Oscar worthy as Coriolanus arch-enemy, the king of the Volscians. (sp?)
More complex as more aptly a possible Supporting Actor nominee is British actor Brian Cox, who FINALLY gets a part he get sink his teeth into, as Coriolanus’ mediator, explicator and finally tragic go-between.
But the film is Fiennes’ and certainly Redgrave’s. Vanessa is the one to beat. But Fiennes is fine, fine, fine, too. The envelope, please…
Redgrave’s only Oscar blockage is her previous win decades ago for Julia, and her politics, but the Academy may overlook all this because her Volumnia is so stupendous, charismatic overwhelming and frightening. She LOVES war more than any of the men in the film, and she has brought up her only son to be a killing machine, but she has not been able to make him a man.
And in Shakespeare’s play about a war against MOM, who do you think wins?