Coriolanus,” directed by Ralph Fiennes, 122 minutes

Why make a film of a play by William Shakespeare? If it’s one of the warhorse tragedies, reason enough might be to put one’s stamp upon the public consciousness of an eternal work. But why film a relatively obscure play? Why contend with what, to a contemporary audience, is alienating language when you’re going to have to cut most of it anyway to bring the text down to film-appropriate length? What news can the play bring us that is so urgent that it can only be told through translation onto the screen?

My questions are prompted by a recent film adaptation, “Coriolanus,” directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes. Shakespeare’s play is set in the early years of the Roman Republic. The background to the action is the persistent conflict between the land-owning and money-lending patricians and the debt-crushed plebeians (a conflict resolved only by enslaving first the neighboring Italian states, then the rest of the Mediterranean). The hero, Gaius Marcius, later surnamed Coriolanus, is the consummate warrior but cannot make the transition from martial to political leader. Outmaneuvered by cynical politicians and banished from the city by the people who only moments earlier had chosen him for consul, he allies with his former foes to destroy Rome, the city he spent his life defending from enemies foreign and domestic—only to falter at the last moment at the urging of his indomitable mother.

Whether we view Coriolanus’s career as tragic in a political sense or not depends on our views of the martial virtues and their place in political life. The Victorians were quite enamored of Coriolanus, and especially of his mother, Volumnia. The play was also notably popular in Germany both before and during the Nazi period. The common thread between the play and two rather different European societies is the tension between a martial/aristocratic ethic and modern, mass politics. The play was banned in Germany by the Allied occupation and retained a power in the postwar era owing to the Nazi connection. Bertolt Brecht spent his last years working on his own version of the play, one that “corrected” Shakespeare to reinforce the theme of class struggle, and in the 1950s Peter Hall directed Sir Laurence Olivier in a production that climaxed with the title character hanged upside-down like Benito Mussolini.

But we are far from the fascist era today, and farther still from the faded ideal of martial aristocracy. Our societies wear the imperial burden lightly. The fraction that is actively engaged in military service is strained heavily indeed, but it is a very small fraction, and our elite families are hardly inclined to raise their children, as Marcius was raised by Volumnia, in the Spartan fashion. An anti-fascist production of Coriolanus would be pointless.

Indeed, it is easier to see how a contemporary staging could become a kind of paean to these lost martial aristocratic virtues—a filmic treatment in particular, by bringing us very close to Coriolanus, would be likely to draw us into identification with his own perspective on his tragedy: that the people of Rome simply weren’t worthy of a man like him. Fiennes does something less satisfying but more interesting than this, more true to the spirit of Shakespeare’s sneakily Brechtian play. Instead of staging our fantasies of a redemptive figure of martial virtue, Fiennes gives us a hero who is living out that fantasy without knowing it and uses him to take that fantasy apart.

Fiennes has set his film in the vague present of contemporary stagecraft. The geography is Balkan—the film was shot partly in Serbia—but the cast has the multiracial “no-place” look of colorblind casting, and the polyglottal “no-place” sound of actors using their native accents; this cuts against any interpretation of the piece as representing the actual Balkans. Marcius’s principal political enemies, the tribunes Brutus and Sicinius are portrayed as smarmy Labour politicians; his principal martial enemy—Aufidius, commander of the Volscians—is attired as a Che Guevara-esque revolutionary; and Coriolanus himself, when he joins with the Volscians to make war on Rome, affects the skinhead stylings of the lumpen-right.

This vagueness blunts the political edge of the play, and Fiennes blunts it in other ways as well. For all the blood spilled in battle, he keeps Marcius’s ferocity towards the people of Rome largely verbal—a news bulletin announces that he has “suspended civil liberties” and riot police disperse a mob that gathers at the city granaries, but they do it with truncheons, not with a hail of bullets. Presumably, one reason for this choice is to keep us from turning against our protagonist prematurely, but he also neuters the political argument on the patrician’s side. Menenius, a patrician senator, has a famous speech early on defending his class to that same mob by analogizing the city to a body with the patricians as the stomach, taking in the nutriment and distributing it as appropriate. The speech is self-serving but entirely sincere—Menenius is a sympathetic figure—and the argument should be familiar to pretty much all defenders of capitalism. But Fiennes cuts it; Menenius appears momentarily on television and is ignored by the mob.

These choices further remove any likelihood of a specific political interpretation of the movie. “Left” and “right” get their stylings, but neither really gets to make an argument as such. What we are watching, as it turns out, is more than anything a Shakespearean action movie.

But that is an interesting thing to watch—and an interesting place for Fiennes to rest his critique. Shakespeare’s Marcius is already an action hero—before the end of Act I, we’ve seen him practically single-handedly conquering the Volscian city of Corioli, which is how he wins his new name. His actions come off as rather mad in the Shakespeare—by succeeding, he won himself a name, but he risked the success of his entire mission on his own arms. In Fiennes’s movie, which must adhere to action-movie tropes, the absurdity of what we are viewing is even more obvious. Marcius and Aufidius throw down their guns and engage in single combat with knives, only to fall through a window and be blown away from each other by an explosion. We can’t avoid noticing that Marcius’s action-movie antics have no military purpose. We’re told that he took the city single-handedly, but we don’t see him actually do anything that looks like that; we just see him showboating with a dagger.

When we then meet Marcius’s terrifying mother, Volumnia, the intimacy of the screen pays off enormously. Vanessa Redgrave delivers a knockout performance in the role, and her chemistry with Fiennes is sizzling. But more even than usual, she comes off as a type of stage mother, demanding a performance from her son more than anything; the “honor” that Marcius wins by his new wounds are like trophies won by a tiger mother’s prize cub. When she pushes her son to flatter the people to win their voices for the consulship, he protests, “would you have me/ False to my nature? Rather say I play/ The man I am.” Redgrave’s Volumnia gives him a look as if to say: really? Are you that limited a performer that you can only play the man you are?

Coriolanus protests that he is a man of action, not an actor. He will not flatter the people; he will not speak in his own defense; he will not show his wounds. Even when others praise him, he hides from hearing it. This isn’t just aristocratic disdain, it’s the desire to be found rather than to seek. Below the conscious level, he knows his whole life has been a performance for his mother’s benefit, an acting out of her dreams, her demands; his reticence to perform for others is a demand that somebody value him for exactly the man he is, not the part he’s playing. But this demand is itself a theatrical gesture.

His feigned reticence is very close to that of the traditional action-movie star: a man remote, self-defined and self-created, who doesn’t take orders easily, who acts out of his own motives and not for recognition. But we, in this respect, are in the role of Volumnia. The action star’s “actions” are performances, enacted for us, to show us our dreams and demands for self-creation through violence. Cameras, and camera phones, are everywhere in the movie; there’s not a moment that isn’t being filmed by somebody, and Fiennes’s Coriolanus flees their gaze. But he does not flee the gaze of the movie camera that Fiennes himself is directing. That camera he courts.

And from within the movie, the contradiction between what Coriolanus asserts he is—a man of action—and what he really is—a man of image—continues to ramify down to the end. We see even less of Coriolanus’s martial prowess after his defection than before. So far as we can tell, the only benefit he’s brought to the Volscians is knowledge of the Roman defenses—the kind of information any high-placed traitor could bring. But he affects an aura, of utter indifference to the consequences of his actions, which is infectious. The Voslcian men ape him, shaving their heads by firelight. They’ve got an action star in their midst, and they want to be like him. Which means to look like him.

When Coriolanus’s mother shows up, and points out the obvious—that he’s a traitor if he attacks Rome, and will earn no honor thereby; that his actions do not exist in a vacuum but have context and consequences—Coriolanus succumbs quickly and comprehensively. Aufidius mocks him later for surrendering at “a few drops of women’s rheum, which are/ As cheap as lies,” but he did not give in out of sentiment. He’d lost his audience—the only audience that actually mattered to him. But once he must play the politician and make peace—however honorable—Coriolanus is easily dispatched, defeated by his need to be seen as an action hero, the man who took Corioli single-handedly.

Fiennes’s “Coriolanus” undermines the action hero by showing us how his apparent preference for action over acting is an inversion of the truth—literally, in that an action hero is just an actor playing a part, but also by highlighting that the hero’s actions only have meaning inasmuch as they are a performance for an audience, an acting-out of that audience’s fantasies. To the extent that Fiennes’s movie has a political point to make, that point relates to the ways we look for action-hero characteristics in our own politicians—and, beyond this, the ways we interpret the actions of our own warriors through the lens of the action genre.

Western societies are no longer mobilized en masse around the fantasy of self-creation through violence. But we live out that fantasy at one remove through the actions of our representatives on a global field of battle who we increasingly conceive in action-hero terms as armies of one.

Noah Millman blogs for The American Conservative at