Badass Modern Shakespeare

I’m a bit skeptical on the concept of modern Shakespeare adaptations. Does Shakespearean dialogue translate to a modern setting? Is it weird to see characters in a modern setting, wearing modern clothing, etc. speaking Shakespearean dialogue?

In an attempt to address these pressing issues, I watched Ralph Fiennes’ recent adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, “Coriolanus”. I really didn’t know much about the plot of Coriolanus, I’ve never read it or seen it performed. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read my fair share of Shakespeare, (I am an English major after all, Bill is the patron saint of English majors) but I was mostly unfamiliar with Coriolanus, aside from what the trailer for the movie informed me. Fiennes directed the movie and starred as the title character.

The basic plot is fairly simple (SHAKESPEAREAN SPOILERS AHEAD, VERILY): badass Roman general Caius Martius, more at home on the battlefield than in politics, wins a great victory against the Volscians, enemies of Rome, and his rival, Tullus Aufidius, the Volscian general. Martius returns to Rome and is given the name “Coriolanus”, in acknowledgement of his victory at the city of Corioles. Coriolanus is appointed consul and is initially popular with the people until they are turned against him by two Roman tribunes and he is banished from Rome. Furious at this betrayal, he allies himself with his former rival Aufidius and together they march on Rome. Rome attempts to dissuade him to stop but their attempts are unsuccessful until they send his wife, son, and mother to appeal to him to spare Rome. He relents and signs a peace treaty between the Romans and Volscians. Aufidius, feeling betrayed, kills Coriolanus. The end.

So that’s it in a nutshell. Of course the details of how the plot progresses are more complex, but that’s the gist of it.

So, how does all of this work in a modern context? Actually pretty well, as it turns out. Fiennes updates the play to a modern setting, while still keeping the dialogue, characters, and story intact. An opening title card informs us that the story takes place in “A Place Calling Itself Rome”, although I’ve read that it looks more like Bosnia or Beirut, which is probably intentional on Fiennes’ part. I watched part of an interview with Fiennes, who said that it isn’t really intended to be any one city in particular, it could be and has characteristics of a number of different cities. It frankly doesn’t really matter exactly what city the story takes place in, since the plot remains the same.

So what is the actual viewing experience like? Is it off-putting to hear Shakespearean dialogue in a modern context? Initially, yes, it is. It is weird to hear newscasters on TV reports speaking in Shakespearean language, or to see soldiers in full gear yelling “AWAY!!” before a bomb explodes. Picture a modern war movie like “Black Hawk Down”, for example, only with the Marines sounding Shakespearean, and you’ll get an idea of what the viewing experience of watching “Coriolanus” is initially like. When Fiennes’ Coriolanus growls at Aufidius (played by Gerard Butler), “I’ll fight with none but thee, for I do hate thee”, and Butler responds, “We hate alike”, it sounds weird coming from guys holding assault rifles and covered in blood.

But the off-putting effect doesn’t honestly last all that long. You get used to it, and the plot really isn’t that hard to follow. I’d be lying if I said I understood every line, but you don’t have to understand every line in order to still be able to grasp what’s going on. That’s the inherent difference between reading Shakespeare and seeing Shakespeare. Reading Shakespeare, you need a ton of notes in order to be able to understand what the hell people are talking about. In a performance of Shakespeare, in a film or on stage or whatever, you don’t need the explanatory notes because seeing the events played out in front of you is explanation enough.

The language really isn’t a barrier to understanding what’s going on. Shakespeare is difficult to read, but the language itself is timeless because you can still understand it, and because it is so eloquent. Everything sounds better in Shakespearean language. “What light through yonder window breaks?” sounds so much better than “Hey, what’s that light coming through the window?” like I mentioned earlier, I haven’t read “Coriolanus” so I don’t know if the dialogue in the film is take verbatim from the play or has perhaps been adapted a bit, but again it doesn’t really matter because the impact and the feel of the dialogue is the same. Why bother changing the dialogue to modern language when Shakespearean language sounds so much better? That’s another thing about Shakespearean dialogue, it isn’t entirely about what is being said as much as how it is said. Ever hear of iambic pentameter? Shakespeare’s dialogue itself is poetry.

Okay, time to change course a bit. Fiennes has a very wiry, soldier-y look in this film. He spends most of the movie bald, reminding me of Voldemort, but with a nose. Gerard Butler reminded me of Leonidas with his bearded, grizzled look, so I couldn’t help but say to myself, “Voldemort vs. Leonidas! Awesome!” when they got a knife fight scene. I can honestly say that I never expected to see a Shakespeare adaptation with machine guns, rocket launchers, and knife fights. It was certainly unique, to say the least, as well as a bit bloody, definitely earning its R-rating for violence.

Coriolanus himself is an interesting character. He doesn’t really fit in anywhere, in many ways he is already an outcast even before he is banished from Rome. The only place he really feels at home is on the battlefield, he doesn’t belong in politics and his disdain for the people gets him into trouble as much as anything else. He is as much responsible for his own downfall as the Roman tribunes who caused him to be banished. He is arrogant and bullheaded, not a good combination for a person who holds a public office. He essentially betrays both the Romans, by joining the Volscians, and the Volscians, by signing a peace treaty with Rome. He’s one of those characters who sets himself on a path to destruction pretty much from the get-go, you know there’s really only one way a story like his can end.

So would I recommend the film? Yes, I would. Modern Shakespeare can work surprisingly well if it’s done right, as Fiennes’ “Coriolanus” is. The film is Fiennes’ first as director and he shows that he’s got talent behind the camera as well as in front of it. He really nails the character’s intensity and ferocity. No one can do subtle, terrifying menace quite like Ralph Fiennes. Gerard Butler is also good, as is Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’ mother, Jessica Chastain as his wife, and Brian Cox as one of his few political allies. The rest of the supporting cast is also quite good, and all of the actors handle the tricky Shakespearean dialogue very well. So yes, overall I would recommend the film, as long as you know what to expect.

I think Roger Ebert wrote in his review that, while he liked the film, it might have a somewhat limited appeal, since as Shakespeare it’s too much action, and as action it’s too much Shakespeare. In a way, the film, like its title character, is a bit of an anomaly, since it doesn’t fully inhabit either world. But also like its title character, it is very good at what it does.


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