In a place called Rome we find discontent. The very name evokes a reiterative embodiment as a center of civilization, or a conglomerated face for it. A face for us all to look at and preen, but the object of which was at one time conquered and bled for. In the Shakespearian tragedy Coriolanus, adapted by actor/director Ralph Fiennes and Gladiator screenwriter John Logan, we bear witness to a nation in the throes of tumultuous reformation. The death and rebirth of a new reign that found a worthy purchase to film. Ralph Fiennes portrays the warrior general with a terrifying validity that makes me afraid to ever get involved in politics. While playing such an intense Machiavellian dragon Fiennes not only captures the fire of Cauis Martius Coriolanus, as a director he also captures the world and its motivations. If this play to film adaptation were also a video game, it would be Call of Duty: Shakespeare.
Who better to cast in opposition to Caius Martius than a man who’s used to spouting kingly lingo than Gerard Butler as Tullus Afidius? This actor doesn’t get enough credit, I feel, and would do well to pull himself out of the toil of B-movie infidelity and back into speaking epic warrior roles. Against Fiennes Coriolanus, Butler’s Afidius stands in fortitude. The supporting cast is also to be commended for their roles including Jessica Chastain as Martius’ wife Virgilia, and Vanessa Redgraves resounding portrayal of Martius’ mother Volumnia. It is remarkable to witness actresses who could maintain the austerity to tame a savage demon of war like Coriolanus.
And what a war we see yet expressed with the filigree of the Bard’s words that it almost seems a thing of beauty. Caius Martius, a general in a modern place that may be called Rome but may not be. In the throes of revolt against people who do not like peace nor war, but only discontent. Martius is that man you’d see admonishing people at the bottom of the socio-economic spectrum who live only to pick at the scabs of people who have earned scars for greatness. Some scabs deserved to be picked.
War progresses with Tullus Afidius and his force of revolutionary Volcians who swear their bloody hatred of Martius and the nation he fights for while it’s senators neglect their people. Martius confronts the citizen rioters personally and dashes their verve as precociousness en masse. The discontent of the people eventually forges a revolutionary general in Tullus Afidius who is Martius’ sworn enemy, and “A Lion worthy of hunting.” Martius and Afidius and their forces do battle in the siege of Volcsi’s capital city of Corioli. Through all the bloody gore of cinematic war I might even praise the voracity of Fiennes blood lusting general. It is in this war-torn cityscape that Martius and Afidius meet face to face, thus entails a vicious knife fight against two enemies who both love to hate one another as worthy foes. The badass duel ends when the two are exhausted and then pulled away from the battlefield by their own men.
The battle is counted a victory for Martius and his “Roman” forces and so he returns to his city a hero but reluctantly receives their praise. It seems that even for his efforts he would not seek reward, rather the reward is in the bloodshed itself. He seems less a man and more a force of nature with death as it’s instrument, but then warfare is so very human that he is perhaps more human than the senators who declare it. Be that as it may, Martius cannot reconcile with his nature when presented the opportunity to take a highly regarded position as Consul. A cadre of scheming senators vie to displace the returning general and call him a power-mad traitor, and indeed, no friend to the people. The altercation rapidly becomes public and Martius faces banishment but gives them the old “I’m not fired I’m quitting this bullshit” routine and so banishes Rome itself from him.
While in exile, Martius approaches his worst enemy who may in fact be his closest friend. Offering his life to Afidius, Martius is instead granted amnesty for his war against the Volcians and then pledges revenge on Rome with his new army. People back in Rome are now fidgeting in their senatorial seats as the onslaught of one of their greatest generals approaches them. Perhaps one of the only shortcomings of the film would be the sightings of the actual war that Martius wages on his former allies, but then it’s not all about war for him, as it turns out. He is still begotten to his mother, and to trample on Rome would be to trample on her and his wife and son. Vanessa Redgrave gives Volumnia’s powerful address to her now revolting son and brings him to his knees and signs a death warrant doing so.
For it was his love for his mother that truly spelled betrayal to the one man who was closest to him up to and until his final moments. It’s a catching and strikingly poignant display of humanities most twisted form of passion. We kill because we cannot find a way to love, and perhaps we kill because we also do love. Sending your enemy to the grave is just as tear-jerking as losing your best friend in battle. Love for one’s family, for one’s enemy, for one’s country, runs deep with every wound it makes, and the stitches left behind can always be opened again.