Politically incorrect film reviews – Coriolanus

Main Cast

Ralph Fiennes as Coriolanus

Gerard Butler as Tullus Aufidius

Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia

Brian Cox as Menenius

Jessica Chastain as Virgilia

John Kani as General Cominius

James Nesbitt as Sicinius

Paul Jesson as Brutus

Jon Snow as TV Anchorman

Coriolanus  competes  with Roman Chainsaw Massacre aka Titus Andronicus  as the least accessible Shakespeare play  today.   Its estrangement from the   modern Western audience  lies in its treatment  of subjects –  patriotism, treason, the warrior spirit  and revenge – which that peculiar creature the latterday  liberal has been remarkably  successful in suppressing from public view, although not from the privacy of the individual mind.   It is this expression of these unfashionable sentiments and emotions which make it so valuable a play for our times because they are fundamental to the way in which human societies organise themselves.  That is why it should be seen, even though it is not  one of Shakespeare’s great plays.

The play is set in the period following the fall of the Tarquins as kings of Rome, an event traditionally dated to 508 BC,  when the Republic is being established.  Rome is at war with the Volsci.  The Roman general Caius Martius is victorious over the Volscian city of Corioli and is granted the additional name of Coriolanus in recognition of the feat and seeks to become a consul, the most powerful and prestigious magistrate in the Roman Republic.  He is thwarted in this by an aristocratic pride which knows no restraint and drives  him into exile after  he refuses to sweet-talk the plebians.

In exile Coriolanus joins with  Volsci and leads an attack on Rome  to revenge himself. But before he attacks he is persuaded by his mother Volumina to spare Rome the sack and instead concludes a treaty between Rome and the Volsci.   By this time Aufidius has become jealous of  his one-time enemy’s charisma and power over the Volsian troops and has him murdered.

The character of Coriolanus is a common enough one, the great general who turns his hand to politics and finds it a very different business.  Wellington is a good example .On becoming prime minister he could not understand why his fellow cabinet members would not simply receive his orders and execute them, but instead argued and engaged in the dark political arts to subvert those policies they disliked.

Wellington is also an exemplar of the post-French Revolution  aristocratic reactionary, having an absolute belief in the right and need of his class to rule and the dire consequences of allowing  not only the masses but also the rising middle classes to  have any hand in government.  (Looking  mournfully at the first Parliament elected after the Great Reform Act  which placed a sprinkling of men of the middling sort  in House of Commons  he dolefully remarked  that he had “never seen so many bad hats in his life”. )

The patrician contempt for the masses  may seem to be merely self-serving, a justification for maintaining the status quo which privileges the patrician class.  There is an element of that,  but it is not simply self-serving  propaganda.  Elites commonly  have  a genuine fear of the masses and in societies without any history of representative government based on a broad franchise  those fears would seem reasonable.  Nor, in undemocratic but settled  societies ,  is the idea of noblesse oblige altogether a sham, for those  born into families which have long had social power in a particular area will often have a relationship with  the population about them  which is based on the duty of privilege as well as its power.

Coriolanus, like Wellington, has a  patrician cast of mind, but unlike Wellington  who had the manners of a gentleman and a strong sense of noblesse oblige,    Coriolanus has only his  insane pride which leads him to baulk at offering  the plebs even civil  words let alone flattering ones and is contemptuous of pleas to  remind them of his service to Rome on the battlefield by showing them his many  scars.

Wellington saw war as a bloody business to be avoided where possible,  although never shirked when necessary;  Coriolanus is in love with it “ Let me have war, say I; it exceeds peace as far as day does night; it’s spritely, waking, audible, and full of vent. Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy: mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war’s a destroyer of men. “ (4.5.238)

The idea that war is a desirable occupation in itself  is a strange one to those brought up in modern Western  societies which ostensibly promote peace at all cost and shudder at the very thought of war, unless of course it is war which suits their liberal internationalist purposes.   But the idea would have seemed perfectly natural, indeed praiseworthy, in most times and places throughout history, for  the warrior has commonly had an integral role in society.

The basic organising  template of homo sapiens has almost certainly not changed from the time when he wandered  in small bands. The anthropology of extant hunter-gathers  today  tells the same  story: men are  valued for  their courage and ability to hunt and fight;  the women do the gathering and child rearing.  It is not an unreasonable assumption to think that this is the way humans have behaved  throughout their history.

To the evidence of present day anthropology  can be added the fact that  such a division of labour between males and females makes perfect sense in tribal societies ,  both in terms of the obvious efficiency  of allotting different roles to men and women  where the women have the task of carrying and then weaning children and in the difference in size,  power and body shape of men and women. There is the further evidence of overt male dominance in societies generally throughout history and in most places today.   It is also worth noting that primates (and mammals generally) normally have  males which are larger and more powerful than the females and it would be very odd if homo sapiens did not display the same sexual dimorphism because we are descended from beings which had this quality.

War not peace has been the normal state for human beings throughout history.  There is a very good reason for that.  Because homo sapiens is a social animal we have to set limits to the group for  without such limits a hierarchy cannot evolve as there is no beginning and end to tie the hierarchy to.   Without a hierarchy no social animal can exist because there would be no means of the animal establishing the sorts of behaviours which make  social animals work,  most notably submission not through violence but by an acceptance of a place in the pecking order.  However, such submission has to be earned through violence for the hierarchy is established through physical dominance.

Homo sapiens being  self-conscious beings with  high intelligence and  possessed of language can, even at the level of hunter gatherers or more settled tribal peoples ,do better than simply establish a hierarchy through violence or even physical size.  Nonetheless, violence plays a part with high rates of mortality from fighting within tribes being widely reported in studies of tribal peoples. Not only that but conflict between tribes  is commonplace. This is unsurprising because each group which sees itself as a separate unit is doing what any other organism does which is fight  for resources,  whether that be territory, women or  food.  Fighting between tribes will reinforce the high status of the warrior within the band or tribe.

When societies get larger and more sophisticated they  find different ways of developing  and maintaining hierarchies such as inherited land and status, but violence  still plays a part as the countless  violent struggles for political power throughout history show.  In addition, the larger the  size of  a society  the greater the potential  threat it poses to its neighbours . That alone will make war likely. But the more sophisticated a society is the greater its ability to intellectualise threats from those outside the tribe, clan or nation and to create reasons which justify war and exalt the position of the warrior.  This also makes war more likely because it not only plays on fears but creates a social structure, as happened for example  in mediaeval Europe, whereby the  primary  purpose of the warrior class (in Europe’s case the knights) was to  wage war.

Even where there is no explicit warrior class in the sense of the knightly class, the martial values still endure.  As  Europe gradually moved into what we call modernity,  armed conflict between  societies  did not diminish. Bravery in arms was still much admired. Moreover, masculinity generally was  admired.  When the First World War broke out Britons were at first very gung-ho about joining the fight and as the reality of modern war became apparent and enthusiasm for enlisting waned,  British men who did not volunteer were called cowards, not least by women.   The idea that it was natural for men to fight in defence of the tribe was still strong.

If this is, broadly speaking,  a true description of human society throughout time it is scarcely surprising that something of the warrior spirit remains even in those societies which are supposedly most removed from the primitive. Natural selection has worked to produce fighters and hunters, selected  males to protect their women and children,  to defend their territory and preserve their tribe.   To be a man is to feel  that it is natural to want to protect with force that which he cares about and to know that is what women and his fellow men expect him to feel. Dr Johnson’s remark “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea” has a great deal of sense in it.

Even in today’s  western world where the idea of violence is officially treated as a primitive aberration,  few men find it  comfortable to be thought a  physical coward, even though physical bravery is often far easier  to summon than moral courage. Nor is there a disgust at the idea of violence as such,  especially amongst men.  A  large part of the staple fare of the mass media has always been  violence, whether of war or gangsters in fiction or ever increasing reporting of  real violence.  Sports, especially contact sports, also cater to the interest, they being surrogates for war.  (If anyone doubts the potency of sports to substitute, on the emotional level, for war they should go to an evening’s  professional boxing and observe the behaviour of the crowd, both male and female. The atmosphere is  raw, with the men on the verge of violence themselves and the women palpably sexually excited.

Even in a country such as Britain which is tightly constrained by political correctness  physical courage is still applauded, not only by the public at large, but by the liberal elite when it suits them.  The likes of Cameron and Blair have been  ready enough to fight wars  to further their political objectives; more than happy to use the police to silence dissent and every willing to employ personal bodyguards. In their heart of hearts they have no doubt about the value of men with a talent for violence.

As for the population at large, they still genuinely celebrate personal bravery because as  Johnson saw  “the profession of soldiers and sailors has the dignity of danger. Mankind reverence those who have got over fear, which is so general a weakness.”

Treason is an concept which liberals  have largely extinguished as a conscious  idea in Britain.  But it still lurks in natural emotional baggage of  the overwhelming majority of people, perhaps even everyone. No one is really comfortable, no, not even liberals, when they see, for example,  Britain unable to defend her own trade and industry or control her borders because of  sovereignty given away.  White, mainly middleclass flight, from areas of high immigration tells its own story of the true feelings of white liberals.  The idea of treason is simply the intellectualisation of natural human instincts.

When it comes to treason, the position of Coriolanus is unusual. He has been exiled from Rome despite his great service  to her as a soldier.  It could be argued that he is not committing treason at all because his countrymen have cast him out. And yet and yet… patriotism is not a simply matter of individual rights and wrongs, something which is taken up or put down by on rational or petty grounds. It is visceral. For all his harshness and desire for personal retribution, his egotism and individualism,   Coriolanus is swayed to spare Rome the worst.

That leaves us with revenge. The idea of revenge  is portrayed as a primitive emotion by latterday liberals, yet what is recourse to the criminal law but revenge? If a person did not wish to revenge themselves why report a crime? In the vast majority of cases a criminal conviction will bring the victim no material compensation from  the criminal. All it will result in is the punishment of the criminal. We may try to justify our reporting of crime by the such ploys as saying “We did it to protect others”, but that does not really work because most people who are convicted of a crime either do not go to prison or  receive only a short sentence. Moreover, a criminal conviction may well make the criminal more likely to offend because a criminal record shuts of job opportunities and if he or she goes to prison they may become more enmeshed in the criminal fraternity.  The reality is we want revenge. The purpose of a justice system is to substitute law for personal revenge.

What of the film? There are problem with it . The main  plus point is that  the major characters are well cast. Fiennes is exactly right in the role of Coriolanus, his sharp features accented by a closely shaven head  being as flint-like as his  character’s disdain; Brian Cox brings his natural authority to the placatory and honest patrician Menenius and Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia shows remarkable moral and physical energy for a woman well into her seventies.  Of the rest Gerrard Butler as the Volscian leader  Tullus Aufidius  projects the necessary  toughness and  the Tribunes, James Nesbitt as Sicinius and Paul Jesson as Brutus,  both display the moral shabbiness of the populist politician – Jesson in particular is satisfyingly slimey.

There is also the compensation of  the language. Even in his lesser  plays  Shakespeare manages to produce a stream of  wonderful encapsulations : “Many-headed multitude”, “Nature teaches beasts to know their friends”;  “These eyes are not the same I wore in Rome”.

But there are significant problems with the film. The director has decided (sigh) to set the action in the Balkans during the 1990s and panders further to the cult of “relevance” by using a well known British TV face, the newsreader Jon Snow, to pass comments and conduct interviews. Would that a modern director  would do something really radical and produce Shakespeare in settings appropriate to  each play.

The film also suffers from what might be called “Troy discordance”, after Brad Pitt’s heroic refusal in the role of Achilles in the 2004 film Troy   to abandon his American accent while the rest of the cast, whether English or otherwise, spoke  with various English accents. There is the same problem here. Most of the major parts are taken by actors speaking forms of received pronunciation  but  the others and all the minor characters offer a mishmash of  Scottish, Northern Irish, American and  Mittel European voices.  I have nothing against any of these accents as such, but it is their mixture which creates a disobliging cacophony.  Give me an all-American, all Slav  or all Scottish cast in the film and I would have no problem. It would  also have been reasonable to had one side in the conflict speaking in one accent and the other side speaking in another.

This discordance is added to by the inability of the minor actors generally  and Jessica Chastain , especially, to master the syntactical complexities of  Shakespeare’s words.

There was one utterly gratuitous piece of political correctness, the casting of the black actor John Kani as General Cominius, a man who seems to believe that speaking in a monotone heavy timbre rumbling equates to fine Shakespearean diction.

But the pluses outweigh the minuses and  the importance  and relevance of the play to our own time make it worth  viewing,  not least because the vast majority of people will not have an opportunity to see a good stage version.

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Comments

  • Nigel Sedgwick  On March 14, 2012 at 10:54 am

    Thank you for a strongly analytical review, especially of the human context.

    I think I must at least challenge you on the concept of revenge on the perpetrator, in complaining of crime to the justice system.

    Surely a major part of the criminal justice system is the concept of deterrent. This is society, for example, substituting for private arms (sword-stick, pistol) and the ability to use same. Such a criminal justice system is of particular relevance for those less physically strong. Deterrent is much reduced if there is no reporting of crime by victims. Such reporting might therefore be viewed as a societal duty.

    However, then can be no true deterrence where there is not adequately harsh punishment. One of the problems with modern society is that punishment of criminals is rarely proportionate to the severity of the crime combined with the probability of punishment.

    Moving wider, it is perhaps possible that Coriolanus also contains some element of deterrent, for would-be rulers. As the review (of society) states, manners and (IMHO particularly) noblesse oblige are requirements for government.

    For fitness for government in modern society (with its vastly greater visibility and speed of communications), noblesse oblige comes even further above the desirable attributes of physical strength and bravery. There is however, a change in its nature: it is now more a recognition that government must balance well the needs of the whole of society.

    [Aside. Cheer-leading against so-called ‘class enemies’ is as prevalent now as it ever was, and is no less a wrong than is cheer-leading against ‘foreign enemies’. In fact, such cheer-leading by politicians usually gives good cause to ask from what ‘bad’ are they are trying to distract us.]

    In government, political partisanship to one’s own ‘class’ and ‘tribe’ must be moderated for the common good and for the longer term than the next election (though clearly it cannot be done away with in totality). Otherwise a more modern banishment, from the hearts of the people, may follow: together with its associated personal bitterness.

    Best regards

  • Silas P Warner  On March 15, 2012 at 8:58 pm

    An alternative to this screen version is the unabridged Caedmon recording from 1967 which was reissued on cassette in the 1990s. The cast is a fine one – Richard Burton in the title role, ably supported by other luminaries such as Sir Michael Hordern as Menenius, Douglas Wilmer as Cominius and Sir Robert Stephens as Brutus. This performance can be picked up reasonably cheaply on Amazon. I warmly recommend it.

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