Coriolanus: an examination of a simple man and his place in a duplicitous and corrupt society

Ralph Fiennes, “Coriolanus” (2011)

When I was 28 years of age, a mysterious Shakespeare-reading frenzy seized me and before I knew what I was doing, I had raced through The Big Four Tragedies, a number of Roman plays, a fair few histories and three twilight-career comedies. Of the four Roman plays I read, “Coriolanus” impressed me the most for its terse, severe language and imagery, and its larger-than-life hero whose fault is to be simple and honest to himself in a society that demands he be a duplicitous and morally corrupt career politician. Caius Martius Coriolanus starts off as a soldier, pure in spirit, wishing only to defend his country in war against the Volscian enemy and rising rapidly to the highest position and honour in his native Rome. Now Rome wants to make him a consul but to do this, Coriolanus must defer to the masses and win their approval. A natural elitist who despises the Great Unwashed because they are soft, lazy and capricious where he is hard, diligent and true to his narrow morality, Coriolanus is manipulated by two wily tribunes Brutus and Sicinius into losing his temper publicly and letting fly what he really thinks of the public. The tribunes brand Coriolanus a traitor, Rome agrees and Coriolanus is forced to go into exile.

He teams up with his Volscian enemy, led by Tullius Aufidius, and before long these barbarians are at the gates of Rome with Coriolanus leading the invasion charge. Rome sends two emissaries to beg and bargain with Coriolanus but he is unmoved. Finally his mum Volumnia, his wife Virgilia, the maid Valeria and Coriolanus junior make a personal appeal to our man; Volumnia delivers such an emotional speech that Coriolanus relents and calls off the invasion. Rome and the Volscians make peace but Coriolanus ends up tarnished as a double traitor to the countries he has served and there is only one avenue left for him … death.

In Ralph Fiennes’s film, the action moves from ancient Rome to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1990s in the aftermath of Yugoslavia’s break-up. Rome is presented as an unidentified Western state, vaguely British with a multicultural population; the Volscians resemble South Slavs in Dalmatia. Fiennes does an excellent job portraying Coriolanus’s hard-man personality and the child-like inner man whose honesty betrays him. A major theme of “Coriolanus” is the homoerotic bromance that exists between Coriolanus and Aufidius (Gerard Butler): one fully expects Aufidius to plant a big wet smacker on Coriolanus’s lips with his own in three significant scenes. Enemy soldiers equally matched who have met several times have more in common with each other than with their own families and people, it seems. Unfortunately once Coriolanus throws his lot in with the Volscians, the relationship between him and Aufidius becomes unbalanced, Coriolanus becomes a star within the Volscian army, and Aufidius understandably feels jealous at the attention his soulmate gets. For they are soulmates of a kind familiar to those who know Shakespeare well: the man of soul (Coriolanus), perfect in most ways except for one flaw that becomes his downfall, up against the man of practicality (Aufidius) who lacks that inner sensitivity and who survives at the expense of his mirror twin but is overshadowed and tarnished by the twin’s death.

The support cast varies from good to great: Butler’s Aufidius and Jessica Chastain’s Virgilia pass muster while Vanessa Redgrave nearly steals the show as the harpy mother Volumnia. Coriolanus’s relationship with his mother is another significant theme: Volumnia seems more in love with war and blood-letting than the son. Is it possible that Coriolanus was driven to be a soldier to please his mother? If Coriolanus had not had Volumnia as his mum, would he have chosen another career instead and become a more balanced, mature man? Is he the replacement for the husband Volumnia once had? Why does Volumnia live through her son and dominate him so much? What might their relationship say about military men and their mothers? Many apparently patriarchal and macho societies throughout the world are distinguished by deep relationships between sons and their mothers: Japan, Saudi Arabia and parts of Latin America are such societies. It is known that ancient Spartan men were extremely close to their mothers who supposedly told their sons that if they went to war, they should either come back totally victorious or return dead on their shields; so Sparta is another candidate society albeit a past one. Fortunately Redgrave plays Volumnia in a way that demonstrates the woman’s deranged nature without making her look camp.

I have some misgivings about the film’s time and place for “Coriolanus”: the period of Yugoslavia’s break-up and the war that raged across Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia generated so much misinformation, propaganda and lies about what really happened there that film-makers who want to make films in that setting are treading in a dangerous mine-field of assumptions and expectations that can easily blow apart. As seems to be the practice with modern-day Shakespearean adaptations, emphasis is placed on the news media channel Fidelis TV (ha!) as a character in itself, relaying urgent news (and spreading propaganda) about Coriolanus and his doings, and helping to damn Coriolanus in the eyes and ears of Romans. The two tribunes Brutus and Sicinius are shown co-operating with two young revolutionary leaders which raises the issue of how much radical youth movements are actually manipulated by cynical politicians; with knowledge that the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy has been abetting so-called “progressive” or “liberal” groups in countries as varied as Serbia in the 1990s, Ukraine, Gruziya (Georgia), Iran during the 2009 Presidential elections, Egypt and Libya in 2011, and Syria in 2012, I consider this issue a very pertinent one indeed.

Not all of Shakespeare’s original play made it into the film and I rather think the film does itself a disservice by omitting Aufidius’s final speech when he realises that he has lost his soul brother. Overall the film does a very good job recreating the martial spirit and ambience of the original play and treating some if not all its themes: the class divide, crowd psychology and how people can be manipulated, the issue of public reputation versus the private reality, gender roles and expectations, and the place of an individual in a changing society whose expectations of him / her shift permanently and for which s/he may be ill-equipped to meet.

 

Ye Yan aka Legend of the Black Scorpion aka The Banquet: Chinese adaptation of “Hamlet” is Much Ado About Nothing

Feng Xiaogang, “Ye Yan” aka “Legend of the Black Scorpion” aka “The Banquet” (2006)

Source: www.chinese-embassy.org.uk

An adaptation of William Shakespeare’s famous revenge play “Hamlet”, this lavish Chinese swords-n-somersaultery production is more aptly if cruelly summarised with the title of another of the Bard’s plays: Much Ado About Nothing. Artier-than-thou cinematography, hammy slo-mo marital arts aerobatics and clever computer animation that can make a cast of hundreds and thousands out of a few actors and flicks ketchup blood into graceful arcs of abstract-art paint bulk up a soap opera plot that becomes yet another chapter in ancient Imperial China’s history of political intrigue, skulduggery and assassinations. The pity of Chinese history operas like this one is that they tend to reinforce a view of Chinese politics through the ages as very personal and dynastic, revolving always around clashes of personalities, ongoing vendettas and disputes, and don’t admit any possibility for political change brought about by social, cultural or technological changes within Chinese society or outside, bar the odd barbarian invasion from north of the Great Wall. In this respect, the films have a very limited and quite conservative viewpoint.

Beneath the layers of fairy floss, the plot hews closely to the original play: the Old Emperor is deposed and murdered by his brother (Ge You) who then claims the throne as Emperor Li and takes the Old Emperor’s widow, Empress Wan (Zhang Ziyi), as his wife. Originally Empress Wan was the Old Emperor’s foster daughter whom his son, Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu), was secretly in love with but when she grew up, the old guy made her his wife which led to the Prince fleeing the palace to reside in southern China, studying music and dance. On hearing of his father’s death, cad though he was, the Prince returns at once to the Imperial Palace, thwarting an assassination attempt launched by Emperor Li on the way. Once back at home, Wu Luan rekindles his dormant romance with Empress Wan and becomes emotionally tangled with a lady-in-waiting Qing Nu (Zhou Xun) who is engaged to marry him. The Prince also sets about investigating his father’s death and discovers the horrific way in which he died and who killed him. Staging a play at Empress Wu’s second coronation as empress proper, Wu Luan exposes Emperor Li’s role in the murder, and for that he is banished under heavy guard, among whom the Emperor has planted assassins, to the northern lands of the Khitan people. Wu Luan evades death and exile thanks to Qing Nu’s brother who had previously been sent to a distant province as governor. In the meantime, Empress Wu plots with Qing Nu’s father, the grand marshall, and her brother to bump off Emperor Li.

Feeling secure in his position, Emperor Li holds a banquet at which Qing Nu and a troupe of masked dancers (with Wu Luan hidden among them) perform a sad love song. Just before performing the song, the Emperor offers a goblet of wine to Qing Nu which she accepts – and which neither of them knows has had a secret ingredient added by the Empress herself, who looks on in horror as Qing Nu gulps down the lot …

The utter wipe-out which follows in which only the grand marshall survives is at least true to the play though Empress Wu proves to be more Goneril than Gertrude overall. For those who don’t know, Goneril is the oldest daughter of King Lear in the Shakespearean play of the same name who kills her younger sister Regan with poison and helps to cause the downfall of her entire family. At the end of the film, we don’t know who’s in charge of the empire and must assume that warlords are going to fight over who’s going to be the next lucky Emperor to preside over a new lot of squabbling and scheming relatives. Like any other self-respecting soap opera, the script introduces new twists and turns up to the end but says nothing original or new about the nature of revenge or how it can backfire on those who take it up. Those wanting to understand more about “Hamlet” because they’ve got to write essays on the play for final school exams won’t find any new interpretations of its politics.

The action actually bogs right down during the drawn-out fight scenes so the film flows less well than it should. The artistic presentation is more a cumbersome burden than an asset for the skeletal plot which goes into detailed overdrive only during the last 30 minutes. With the exception of lead actor Zhang, the actors have little to work with on their characters and their efforts are uneven: Ge is convincing enough as the suave, conniving Emperor Li and Zhou is touching as the innocent Qing Nu but Daniel Wu as the Prince seems a bit one-dimensional compared to Ge and Zhang. Zhang as Empress Wu is miscast: she looks too young and bland, and her voice is too youthful and sweet, for her to be convincing as a duplicitous Empress. I really think the role should have gone to an actor of the calibre and experience of Gong Li, Maggie Cheung or Michelle Yeoh; it’s a bit creepy as well to have the Empress Wu married to the Old Emperor, in love with his son and then married off and also warming to the Old Emperor’s brother!

Lovely to look at but all those special effects and the colour can’t cover over a skimpy story that adds nothing new to the audience’s understanding of revenge and how it undoes everyone caught up in it, and which manages to turn the politics of “Hamlet” into a soap opera about dysfunctional families.

Throne of Blood: a fine film let down by truncated plot and mostly sketchy characters

Akira Kurosawa, “Throne of Blood” (1957)

Often referred to as an adaptation of the Shakespearean play, “Macbeth”, this historical drama by Kurosawa is a fine film that is actually sourced from many different inspirations and influences, of which the play is a significant inspiration, and which also combines some features of Japanese Noh drama and the American Western film. “Throne of Blood” often hailed as a masterpiece but, truth be told, I found it less compelling than Kurosawa’s later “Ran” which also partly references Shakespeare (“King Lear” to be specific). Certainly if filming in colour, a bigger budget and a greater knowledge of Japanese military history and mediaeval fighting techniques had been accessible to Kurosawa in 1957, then “Throne of Blood”, technically at least, would have been a much greater film than it is. As it is, the film has to depend much more on plot and character than “Ran” does, and in this, it’s a much lesser film than “Ran” (and even then, the characters in “Ran” can be rather one-dimensional with the exception perhaps of Lord Hidetora’s fool). Part of the reason is that the plot of “Macbeth” is much whittled down in “Throne …” with a watered-down Macduff character to oppose the Macbeth character, Lord Washizu (Toshiro Mifune), and as a result a source of tension and interest is removed; another reason is that with his epic samurai films, Kurosawa intended to say something about the nature of war and killing in our age, and used a specific historical period in Japan – the period from about 1450 to some time in the early 1600’s (known in Japan as the Sengoku period, or Warring States period) when the Tokugawa shoguns took over the country and ushered in an unprecedented age of peace and prosperity- as a way of enabling people to view modern warfare and killing objectively, and this lesson takes precedence over character depiction to the extent that the characters appear clunky and one-dimensional.

The film opens with two warrior friends, Washizu and Miki (Minoru Chiaki), lost in a forest after successfully crushing a rebellion against warlord Kuniharu Tsuzuki (Takamaru Sasaki), who holds Spider Web Castle. After fruitlessly riding through dense fog and dark trees, the two men come upon a witch (Chieko Naniwa) who, chillingly, spins thread on her spindle in the manner of the Three Fates of ancient Greek mythology. The woman prophesies that Washizu and Miki will be promoted for their efforts and that Washizu and Miki’s son will become lords of Spider Web Castle. Naturally the two men are doubtful but the prophecy that they will achieve military promotions comes true and this leads Washizu to become uneasy, restless and not a little ambitious. His clever wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) realises the inner turmoil he’s going through and starts egging him on to realise his ambitions. Soon enough, Lord Tsuzuki comes to stay at the garrison where Washizu and Asaji have just moved in with their household and this affords both husband and wife an opportunity to kill him. They cover up their treason by blaming the murder on Tsuzuki’s guards. With Tsuzuki out of the way, Washizu becomes Lord of Spider Web Castle but the other part of the prophecy about Miki’s son begins to trouble him and Asaji, and they soon start acting in strange ways and doing things that alert others to suspect that they (Washizu and Asaji) are Tsuzuki’s real murderers. Eventually Asaji goes mad and Washizu rushes headlong into a war that will be his doom.

Mifune gives a great performance as Washizu, though much of the time his face is distorted into fixed expressions of rage, and even in the extended sequence where he is being hounded by arrows in a narrow corridor, he still looks often as angry as he does terrified. Yamada, made up in Noh make-up and costuming, is as emotionless and artificial as Mifune is as openly emotional, neurotic and panicky to the point where he starts to flail about with his sword and … oops! … someone’s cut in half and looking very dead. The two complement each other perfectly: Asaji knows how Washizu’s mind works and she guesses correctly that he wants Miki out of his way so she arranges for this to happen. She doesn’t need to say a lot to goad Washizu into killing Tsuzuki as she knows only social convention and the samurai code of honour are preventing him from fulfilling his ambition. The pity though is that these two characters are the only fully rounded characters in the film: all the others, Miki in particular, are so slightly delineated as to be moving wallpaper needed to prop up the plot. Miki may be a ruthless warrior but you wouldn’t know it from the way he is portrayed in the film. The code of honour that compels Washizu to treat Miki as his equal and which is part of the reason that Washizu has qualms about killing Miki seems superfluous. Miki’s son (Akira Kubo), who one might expect to be at least hell-bent on avenging Dad’s death, merely attaches himself to a rival warlord Noriyasu (Takashi Shimura), the would-be Macduff character who never gets to meet Washizu and avenge Miki’s death on the son’s behalf as the code of honour would require. Neither Noriyasu nor Miki’s son is more than window-dressing for the plot. Incidentally Shimura and Mifune had appeared together in a previous Kurosawa film “Seven Samurai” so it’s rather strange that Kurosawa decided not to pit their characters against each other in a climactic do-or-die fight that would allow Washizu to die nobly and gasp out some last words about how the gods play around with humans like toys, and Noriyasu in return spout something about maintaining samurai honour and restoring the natural order of the world to appease the gods.

It would have been really worthwhile too if at some point during Washizu’s extended death scene, mighty and terrifying though it is, the samurai realised he has been manipulated by the witch through his blind faith in her “prophecy” and that he has thrown away his own life and the lives of people he cared for dearly as a result. All his achievements will be dwarfed by his treason and other crimes. There is nothing to suggest that Washizu and Asaji come to learn anything about themselves through their failings and misdeeds. I can’t remember from my own readings of Shakespeare’s plays whether he dealt with the idea of free will versus predestination. I have a feeling that he did, and that one play in which he might have done this is “Macbeth” so it should have been possible for “Throne of Blood” to combine both the notion of people trapped in a world where all their actions have been pre-determined by fickle gods or evil spirits and one character coming to realise that he has been exploited in this way and maybe should have resisted the witch’s words.

Though there are some great scenes – an early prolonged scene in which Washizu and Miki race around in circles in the fog demonstrates perfectly how enmeshed in the workings of fate they are and how their arrogance will undo them – the film does feel very cramped in its outdoor settings and use of black-and-white film. Even so, black-and-white film is used effectively to create creepy atmospheres and moods, especially in the forest scenes, and the weather becomes a significant character in the film, reflecting characters’ inner moods and thoughts, and portending what is to happen in the plot. “Throne of Blood” really does cry out to be filmed in colour, even if the range of colours that suit the film is in the dark blues, greys, blacks and blood-red, and with more panoramic filming techniques and appropriate film stock so you get a real sense of Japanese history and what the unsettled Warring States period might have been like.

Ran: stock characters make this film merely good, not truly great

Akira Kurosawa, “Ran” (1985)

“Ran” (“Chaos” or “Revolt”) was Kurosawa’s last attempt at creating and filming an epic historical drama set in Japan’s Kamakura period when feudal warlords ruled the country. At the time he made it, it was Japan’s most expensive film ever at a budget of US$12 million, financed mainly by French producer Serge Silberman. The film’s initial inspiration was stories about a 16th century daimyo (warlord), Mori Motonari, but the screenplay was also influenced by the famous play “King Lear” by William Shakespeare.

The film revolves around aged daimyo Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) and the consequences of the decision he makes in dividing his lands and the responsibilities that attend them, among his three sons prosaically named Taro, Jiro and Saburo (“one”, “two” and “three”, played by Akira Terao, Jinpachi Neru and Daisuke Ryn respectively), while retaining his titles, the symbols and privileges of his position. Taro and Jiro happily agree to the arrangement but Saburo, foreseeing trouble as Hidetora had not exactly been a model dad or a just ruler, objects. For his disobedience, Hidetora angrily banishes Saburo who is then forced to take refuge with Fukimaki, one of two rival warlords – the other named Ayabe – wishing to marry their daughters to him. Saburo allows one of his retainers, Tango (Masayuki Yui), to continue serving Hidetora in disguise.
 
Hidetora plans to spend his twilight years boarding at Taro and Jiro’s castles in turn. It’s not long before Taro, egged on by his wife Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada),whose family was murdered by Hidetora, finds a way to boot out Dad and his retinue so the aged man seeks Jiro’s help. Jiro, forewarned by Taro, also finds an excuse to refuse hospitality so Hidetora finds refuge in Saburo’s recently abandoned castle and lands. Alas, even this isn’t to the older sons’ liking as they join forces to storm the castle, killing nearly all of Hidetora’s followers and forcing him to flee into the wilderness. While exulting in the destruction, Taro is killed by Jiro who had been plotting all along with his generals to usurp Big Brother.

Hidetora’s fool (Peter) and Tango locate the old man and help him find refuge with a hermit who turns out to be Tsurumaru (Takashi Nomura), young brother of Jiro’s wife Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki). Years ago, Hidetora had killed the young siblings’ parents and blinded the son. Confronted by the evidence of his evil deed, Hidetora begins to lose his sanity and leaves the shelter. Meanwhile back at the Jiro ranch, Jiro is approached, seduced and manipulated in turns by his brother’s widow, Lady Kaede, who has shrewdly guessed his ambitions and persuades him to repudiate and kill Sue and marry her instead. Sue is forced to flee for her life so she finds Tsurumaru and they go to their parents’ abandoned castle ruins. Hidetora and his two followers have also arrived there and on seeing the young people, Hidetora descends further into madness and runs onto the plains of Azusa.

Tango returns to Saburo who then prepares his army and returns to the family territories to find Hidetora. Jiro, forewarned by messengers (dontcha just love the Pony Express that operates around here? where can we get fast express delivery like that?), leads his army to meet his brother’s. In the battle, Saburo’s disciplined forces rout Jiro’s with gunfire; in the meantime, Saburo receives news of Hidetora’s whereabouts so he personally goes off to retrieve him. Jiro guesses at what he’s doing so he dispatches assassins to follow after. He then receives news that Ayabe’s army is advancing on his castle so his army hurries back with Saburo’s forces on his tail. Jiro and his generals manage to get back to defend his stronghold. One general, Kurogane, who had earlier defied Lady Kaede, confronts her and finds out she has intended all along to destroy Hidetora and his two sons, so he kills her. Anchorless, Jiro and his generals find themselves and their exhausted, depleted army facing the full onslaught of Ayabe’s fresh forces.

Saburo finds Hidetora and they joyfully reconcile but Saburo is cut down by one of Jiro’s unseen assassins. Overcome by the disaster that has resulted from his rash decision, Hidetora collapses and dies. By this time, Sue and her maid have also been killed to fulfill Lady Kaede’s wish. This leaves Tsurumaru stranded at the family castle ruins, clinging to a painting of Amida Buddha that Sue had given him – which he accidentally loses down a cliff-like wall.

It’s a splendidly shot film with great visual beauty and dynamics: Kurosawa often uses landscapes to enhance a sense of extreme isolation, as in the scenes where Hidetora and his fool hide out in the ruined castle, or to suggest chaos falling in on Hidetora when he is first cast out into the wilderness. Even the weather and the time of day are important: the film opens during a bright part of the day with thunderclouds gathering overhead and ends during sunset with a blood-red sun. In the film’s opening scene, Hidetora and his sons, mounted on horses, are standing at right angles from one other looking for something and this scene portends the division, conflict and chaos to follow. There is close attention to technical detail, at least in battle scenes and those scenes that take place in castles, some of which were built for the film, though it’s possible Kurosawa took some liberties with actual historical details for the purpose of the film. The use of guns suggests the film’s events occur during the late 1500’s / early 1600’s which coincide with Shakespeare’s life-span and it’s likely the battle between Jiro and Saburo’s forces is partly based on the Battle of Nagashino of 1575, which Kurosawa dramatised in “Kagemusha” (1980), in which the use of guns overcame cavalry.
 
Nakadai as Hidetora is credible in the way he deteriorates mentally and physically; his make-up, based on Noh play conventions, reflects his gradual downfall. At the same time he becomes less of a stock character and more of a human being with feelings and weaknesses. The problem I have with Hidetora is that, unlike Lear in the Shakespearean play, Kurosawa passes up an opportunity to have him become a more caring and compassionate person towards his fool and others. Perhaps Hidetora is restricted by his social role not to care for others lower on the social scale and indeed most characters in the movie are one-dimensional stereotypes restricted by their social niches. This is true particularly of Lady Kaede whose make-up, stylised movements and monochromatic clothing render her a highly artificial and refined alien creature nursing a demonic hatred for Hidetora’s family; she’s the least human of the whole cast. Did her upbringing as well as Hidetora’s treatment of her and her family turn her into a devil? Hidetora’s fool on the other hand, moves naturally and expresses the full range of human emotions including courage and grief, and is clearly the one sane person in a highly dysfunctional world. Harada and Peter’s performances as these two characters are by far the most memorable in the film, not least because these characters behave outside the accepted gender norms for their society and class.

My impression of “Ran” is of a world of people trained and restricted by their roles in life to act as unthinking ants for the amusement of indifferent gods, an ontological view expressed by a minor character in the film. The collapse of this society is total with the unnecessary death of Sue, so devoted to Amida Buddha and forgiving of Hidetora, and Tsurumaru’s total abandonment when he loses the painting. The conclusion  is melodramatic, perhaps overdone – even Shakespeare didn’t obliterate all his main characters in “King Lear” – but it certainly illustrates an extremely pessimistic, nihilist view of the universe. Even in this world though, I still think there’s room for character development for Hidetora and maybe his sons, and this would have made “Ran” a classic film rather than merely a very good one: the tragedies that befall them would have been so much greater and more painful, and the universe become more harsh and uncaring, if the men had come to regret their actions and tried to make amends to others, only to be smacked down for their efforts by capricious gods.