The Wrath of Ralph
Published on November 30th, 2011 | by Charles H. Meyer0
“Coriolanus” (Ralph Fiennes, 2011) opens this Friday, December 2.
I feel fortunate never to have read or previously seen a production, whether staged, filmed or otherwise, of William Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” as this ignorance saves me from feeling compelled to critique Ralph Fiennes’s powerful, gritty, violent, bloody new film version of “Coriolanus,” set in a present-day, although fictional, Rome, on the grounds of its success or failure as an adaptation. (If you want to see me flex my critical muscles in that manner, then please read my review of “Toast.”) Leave that task to others, to the veteran stage directors and Shakespeare scholars who are, surely at this very moment, up in arms over the liberties Fiennes has taken, furiously typing up their critiques, although I suspect that any harshness they might be leveling at the film is tempered with admiration for its strong and superb performances by Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, and the suddenly omnipresent auburn-haired mother goddess Jessica Chastain (see “The Tree of Life,” “The Help,” “Take Shelter,” and “Texas Killing Fields” for confirmation of this stunning, porcelain-skinned Venus’s recent everywhere-ness).
Having only read “Hamlet,” “The Tempest,” “The Merchant of Venice” and “Much Ado About Nothing”; having only seen theatrical productions of “Othello,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth”; having only seen film adaptations of “Hamlet,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Romeo and Juliet”; and having only played Claudius once, in my only dramatic turn, in a high school production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” I cannot call myself a Shakespearian. In saying all of that, I’m not being falsely modest. I just know that my knowledge of Shakespeare is casual compared to that of anyone who has worked seriously with the man’s plays, whether as actor, scholar or director.
So I’d like to ask the experts, the real Shakespearians (and not the Sunday-painter variety to which I belong): Wouldn’t the bard have preferred that we stage his plays in our own present day rather than in the past (or, somewhat faddishly, the future), as seems more often to be the custom? I ask this because I believe that Ralph Fiennes and his collaborators have given the cinema a great gift in setting “Coriolanus” in the here and now rather than in its more “proper” historical setting, and for once the effort, although it certainly causes frequent frissons of a suspension-of-disbelief-suspending Brechtian alienation effect (e.g., from hearing Elizabethan English spoken by political pundits on the faux-Fox News channel Fidelis), does not feel stylized, forced or artificial, as it does in films like Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” (1996) or Michael Almereyda’s “Hamlet” (2000). Granted, I’m being unfair by comparing those futuristic productions to this one set in the present, but I can’t think of any other examples of film adaptations of Shakespeare set in the present. Shakespearians, a little help?
Michael Rawls: As per your request for Shakespeare plays translated into the present: Basil Dearden’s “All Night Long” (1960) resets “Othello” in the contemporary London jazz world with Patrick McGoohan as a drummer Iago trying to destroy bandleader Othello’s marriage so he can cop lead singer Desdemona for his own band.
And how about “The Rest is Silence” (Helmut Käutner, 1960) with Hardy Krüger as a “Hamlet” in the Great Industrial Court of the German Economic Miracle of the late 1950s?
Agreeing with the great Peter Cook that film is “a vi-zu-l medium,” I think that attempting to film plays which do have so many, many words is “a fool’s errand” (who said that?) and that the wisest course is to steal the plots. This was most beautifully done by Delmer Daves in the best of his westerns, “Jubal.” The racial angle is lost (this IS 1956 Amurca), but Ernest Borgnine is a good, well-meaning Othello, owner of a state-sized ranch, Rod Steiger is the slimiest of Iagos (ranch foreman) and his object of desire is Borgnine’s Desdemona, the luscious Valerie French. Jubal, a somewhat ennobled (in character, that is; I mean, he did formerly herd sheep) Roderigo, Desdemona’s not-quite lover, is played by Glenn Ford, who is about as good as your American (not Amurcan) Everyman gets.