Shakespeare on Screen: Coriolanus and Private Romeo

A Shakespearean double feature: one, a relatively faithful adaptation of one of Shakespeare's least-loved tragedies, fully populated with Famous Brits; the other, a reconfiguration of Romeo and Juliet in an all-male military academy, made on a clearly minuscule budget with a small cast of pretty unknown actors. Neither is entirely a success, but they're not boring, and both are valiant attempts worth at least the time it takes to watch them.

Coriolanus was the last of Shakespeare's Roman plays (after Julius Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra) and it has never had the popularity of its predecessors, despite being at least their equal in its rhetoric and drama. Indeed, T.S. Eliot once wrote that, "Coriolanus may be not as 'interesting' as Hamlet, but it is, with Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s most assured artistic success." (Meanwhile, Shaw called it "the greatest of Shakespear’s comedies.") Shakespeare took the basic story from Plutarch, but adapted it for greater resonance with the circumstances of early-17th Century England. He also simplified it for dramatic purposes — Plutarch's Coriolanus is politically experienced and shrewd, while a central fault of Shakespeare's Coriolanus is his inability to adapt his brute military talent to the political (or social) realm.

One of the reasons Coriolanus has probably not been as popular as many of Shakespeare's other tragedies is that its central figure is unlikeable, but not delightfully so. Richard III is utterly detestable, but the character is beloved of actors and audiences because he absolutely revels in his nastiness, and thus allows us to do so as well. (The same could be said of Titus Andronicus — Julie Taymor brilliantly showed how much our enchantment with such Shakespearean characters is similar to our enchantment with such characters as Hannibal Lecter.) But Shakespeare keeps us at more distance from Coriolanus. His verse is rough, raw, sharp; he has nothing but contempt for the masses and yet also loathes the aristocracy. His only comfortable home is a battlefield. More than any other of Shakespeare's protagonists, Coriolanus is the subject of other characters' conversations, and so his function within the play is less that of a tragic (anti-)hero than of a foil: through their responses to him and interpretations of him, the characters stand as a portrait of their society.

This comes through a bit in Ralph Fiennes's film, though because of the cuts to the text the political context of the story is minimized. It's generally a good idea to cut Shakespeare for film, since the richness of film's mise-en-scene tends to make the richness of Shakespeare's language superfluous — language on Shakespeare's stage served as production designer, among other things — though a deliberate minimalism can mitigate this (see both Richard Eyre's and Trevor Nunn's faithful but still a bit stage-bound films of their productions of King Lear; or most interestingly, Peter Brook's Hamlet, which coupled a radical reworking of the text with an absolute minimum of scenery, making for a film I find entrancing, but which plenty of people detest. But then, I also like Brook's slow, existentialist version of Lear). Screenwriter John Logan has done good, creative cutting and opening-up of the script, and more may have been done in post-production editing. The greatest challenge for cutting is primarily the play's first and second acts, because so much of our understanding of the characters and situations is established there, yet the play's pacing is too slow for the film, particularly if you need to grab and hold audiences' attentions right off. Luckily, there's a battle. Movies can portray warfare with far more depth than the theatre can, and so the Act I battle between the Romans and Volscians is turned into urban street warfare and given more time than it has in many stage productions. We thus see Coriolanus's extraordinary prowess as a warrior in a visceral way, and the effect is powerful, but it comes at the cost of some coherence — the retreat of Aufidius seemed especially confusing to me in the film, although it is portrayed with powerful action-movie vigor.

Where the time and speed bought with ruthless cutting to the script in the first half pays off, though, is at the end, when Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia is allowed to keep her speeches in V.iii relatively intact. It's an enrapturing performance of absolutely essential text, because here her words are action — she convinces Coriolanus to give up his vengeful plans of attack on Rome. It seals his doom, but his doom was probably already set, for Aufidius was always determined to triumph over him. But by sacrificing his body, Coriolanus saves the body politic, which has been an ongoing metaphor from the first scene of the play (less so the movie). Redgrave's performance is among the great Shakespearean performances on screen.

The other actors are all at least adequate, but the cuts in the script limit what they can do. Fiennes gives a good, bullish performance as Coriolanus, spitting his words like broken teeth. It's among the most thankless of Shakespeare's major tragic roles, because Coriolanus is singularly inarticulate. (For the modern stage, he's eloquent beyond any character other than a few from Edward Albee or maybe Tony Kushner, but we're talking Shakespeare here!) The politicians can talk circles around him, and do. Which is very much the point: Coriolanus is a warrior first and foremost, an exceptional body that punishes and is punished. When trapped by schemers in Rome, he flees to his enemy not only because of a desire for revenge, but because he recognizes that it is among warriors that he belongs. And Aufidius recognizes this as well:
O Coriolanus, Coriolanus!
Each word thou hast spoke hath weeded from my heart
A root of ancient envy. If Jupiter
Should from yond cloud speak divine things,
And say 'Tis true,' I'd not believe them more
Than thee, all noble Coriolanus. Let me twine
Mine arms about that body, where against
My grained ash an hundred times hath broke
And scarr'd the moon with splinters: here I clip
The anvil of my sword, and do contest
As hotly and as nobly with thy love
As ever in ambitious strength I did
Contend against thy valour. Know thou first,
I loved the maid I married; never man
Sigh'd truer breath; but that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing! more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold. Why, thou Mars! I tell thee,
We have a power on foot; and I had purpose
Once more to hew thy target from thy brawn,
Or lose mine arm fort: thou hast beat me out
Twelve several times, and I have nightly since
Dreamt of encounters 'twixt thyself and me;
We have been down together in my sleep,
Unbuckling helms, fisting each other's throat,
And waked half dead with nothing. Worthy Coriolanus,
Had we no quarrel else to Rome, but that
Thou art thence banish'd, we would muster all
From twelve to seventy, and pouring war
Into the bowels of ungrateful Rome,
Like a bold flood o'er-bear. O, come, go in,
And take our friendly senators by the hands;
Who now are here, taking their leaves of me,
Who am prepared against your territories,
Though not for Rome itself.
It's a remarkable speech, full of the homoeroticism of manly battle, the love bred by hatred. True warriors can know only war and can love only fellow warriors. (The film keeps much of this, though cuts the wonderful "We have been down together in my sleep, / Unbuckling helms, fisting each other's throat, / And waked half dead with nothing.")

By setting the movie in a modern, urban realm of war, and by filming and editing a lot of it in the post-continuity, handheld verité style of many recent war and war-related movies (cinematographer Barry Ackroyd also shot United 93, Green Zone, and The Hurt Locker, among others), Fiennes insists on the story's contemporaneity. What that contemporaneity is, though, is less insistent. The Citizens could be straight out of Battle of Algiers or the West Bank or Tahrir Square or many other movements and moments. The military uniforms are generic junta. Contemporary, but vague. (This is a play that previously had led to riots in 1930s France, when Communists and Fascists both thought it was denouncing them.) The effect is not jarring, nor nearly as ostentatious as, say, Baz Luhrman's Romeo & Juliet (which I must admit I adore), and yet it allows plenty of interesting, evocative images, even if the setting and textual cuts blunt the political allegory that Shakespeare himself strove for with the original. We may not now have an exact analogue of the Midland Revolt or a ruler as besotted with Roman iconography as James I, but parallels aren't hard to find — the problem for contemporary, classically liberal viewers is that our values aren't Shakespeare's. He was much more a monarchist than a proto-Marxist or liberal democrat, and to focus much on the politics of the play is to be forced into advocating for a strong, noble king to heal the wounds inflicted on the state. A more specifically political production — in which, say, the Citizens were Occupy Wall Street activists — would risk not only a kitschy on-the-noseness, but also subverting its own intentions. What Fiennes's Coriolanus admirably preserves is the original's perspective on the perils of military leadership for a civilian society, and, more broadly, the difficulty for a warrior of adjusting his personality, skills, and instincts to anything other than war.

Private Romeo also, at least ostensibly, concerns itself with warriors, but it is much more a film about masculinity than militarism per se. It is also virtually unique as a screen adaptation of Shakespeare, for while there have been plenty of all-male Romeo & Juliets before (include the original production), and there have been countless radical adaptations of the script and story (Tromeo & Juliet, anyone?), Private Romeo takes Shakespeare's text and fits it to a different story than the original. It's only partially successful, but in the successful moments, it's exhilarating.

The basic concept of the film is that a small group of cadets have been left behind at a military academy for four days while most of the other cadets and faculty are off at training maneuvers. The cadets have been reading Romeo & Juliet in their English class, and it seems to have infected them: outside of class, they mostly (though not exclusively) speak the play.

When the text is spoken, it isn't updated or made to fit the story, so while there are no rival families in the movie, the characters still speak of Montagues and Capulets. All of the actors are male, and yet they speak, without apparent irony, of some of them as female. Etc. Shakespeare's words become for them a kind of code, a complex path toward emotions and ideas that their own everyday language cannot approach.

The conceit works best in the first half or so of the movie, when we are just getting used to it. That the actors are almost all excellent helps — they speak the words without bombast or awkwardness, and always sacrifice the poetry for naturalism rather than vice versa. Seth Numrich as the Romeo character is especially winning, though the best performance to my eyes is that of Chris Bresky as the nurse; certainly, his line delivery is the most subtle and supple. Matt Doyle as the Juliet character was a bit too giggly for me, but in many ways that fits the character. Unfortunately, his biggest scenes are saved for the second half of the film, where the conceit gets stretched beyond the breaking point.

The problem with this adaptation ultimately is that it lowers the stakes. In classical tragedy, individual desires and decisions have monumental effects, and while classical tragedies certainly have plenty of memorable characters, they aren't overall stories of individual joy and misery. The problems for the characters in Private Romeo have no apparent implications for anyone beyond themselves.

Also, in terms of dramaturgy, life-or-death problems are much more interesting than "oh you hurt my feelings" problems. While hurt feelings may sometimes feel life-or-death to us (especially in adolescence), they're really pretty minor in the grand scheme of things. Private Romeo jettisons all questions of life or death. Romeo, Mercutio, and Tybalt get into fights, but they're just brief fist-fights, minor brawls. Everybody ends up seeing the error of their ways at the end. Worse, writer-director Alan Brown has kept the potion-that-makes-you-look-dead, but its purpose in the story is obscure, because Romeo knows that Juliet is not dead when he finds him, so he just sips some of the potion, climbs up on the lab table with him, and they cuddle there like a couple at the end of a long party. Why this makes anybody think any differently of them, we don't know, because once they both wake and the other cadets find them, the film cuts to Juliet staring at the camera and singing "You Made Me Love You" while the credits roll.

This incoherent, insipid ending is all the more infuriating because there is so much good stuff in the first half of the movie. A lot of the exhilaration comes from not knowing quite how the Shakespeare fits into the film's reality: at first, we might think the characters are just practicing lines for an upcoming performance of the play. But then they keep talking that way, day and night. It's as if the emptiness of the military academy has allowed them to create their own world. (The various shots of empty buildings and corridors are another strength of the film, almost Tarkovskian in their hollow resonances.) Conditioned by countless other movies, we might assume that the central conflict will be homophobia, that Romeo and Juliet will have to hide their love from everyone — this feeling makes the beautiful first kiss terrifying — but it turns out that this is not the case at all. I wondered, early on, if the Montagues vs. Capulets would be replaced with gays vs. straights, but thankfully the film is not so reductive. The topic of sexual identities never comes up. In its assertion of love without assertion of sexual identity, the film is powerfully queer.

As the story progresses, and as the movie must fit its characters into some sort of story that can be evoked from Shakespeare's text, it grows less interesting, but throughout there are lovely moments. Two of the characters seem to be making videos of themselves lip-synching to indie rock songs (Bishop Allen to be precise); the first is goofy and funny, the second is more weird than funny, ending with both characters staring like lost children into the camera, as if uncertain what to do without a song playing. (To express themselves fully, they always need to speak someone else's words.) It's an unsettling and yet oddly moving moment. Similarly, the cinematography (by Derek McKane) is evocative: the exterior shots are often desaturated, the interiors usually warm and a bit dark, creating a sense of a hard, blank, vast outside world against the sensuous mysteriousness of the inside.

So while the experiment of Private Romeo doesn't quite work for the whole movie, it's nonetheless significantly more interesting than many more blandly successful films, or films with giant budgets and corporate hearts. If it lacks much in the way of tension or terror, it redeems itself with many moments of strange and quiet beauty.