The General with the Dragon Tattoo: Corolanius, directed by Ralph Fiennes

Coriolanus is a play, like the late-night partying rampant in Hamlet’s Denmark, that has been more honoured in the breach than in the observance. Its past has been checkered; sporadically produced and seen through radically different lenses, this drama of an uncompromising Roman general who ends up attacking his own country was championed by Fascists and Communists alike. In France in the 1930s the play was suppressed, and it fell out of favour in post-war Germany because it was so popular with the Third Reich; in 1951 Bertolt Brecht saw it as a worker’s play, perfectly adaptable to his alienation effect. There have been famous stage productions, notably Laurence Olivier in Stratford in 1959 and Peter Hall’s version with Ian McKellen in the title role at the National Theatre in 1984, but of Shakespeare’s Roman plays, Coriolanus has enjoyed nothing like the popularity of Anthony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. It had never been made into a film.

That has changed courtesy of Ralph Fiennes, who has cast himself as the doomed general in his directorial debut. On both sides of the camera, he has engineered a triumph; a fascinating look at a man made for action and unmade by words. Fiennes, for his part, has his own mixed history with the play; in 2000 he played Coriolanus in an epic production staged in a hangar at London’s Almeida Theatre, but he felt he never got at the core of the character. “I was honouring the play, but not connecting,” he remembers. “I felt frustrated.” The need to find a way to make that connection stayed with him, as did his conviction that the story was perfectly suited to film. “It presents the audience with a very high-definition protagonist,” Fiennes says, “He challenges you to dislike him.”

We do. What does it say about the age we live in that a story about a ruthless soldier who betrays country, family and comrades can seem not only sensible, but emblematic? Fiennes sets the film in a contemporary, war-ravaged city—it was shot in Belgrade—where the rubble-filled streets and pock-marked neighbourhoods are ideal for the riveting building-by-building combat scenes that propel the film early on. Along with his superb cast (including Brian Cox as Menenius, his ardent supporter; Gerard Butler as Aufidius, his fervent enemy; and Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia, his fevered mother), Fiennes employs actual Serbian soldiers. The battle scenes have about them a lived-through, sickening authenticity.

The war between the Romans and the Volscians is perceived as much through the eye of television as through the sight of an automatic weapon. The film is constantly showing us events on a screen—domestic riots, military actions, political confrontations. (Fiennes even casts a well-known British news anchor as himself). These scenes have two advantages; they allow him to streamline words into pictures, and they give the film tremendous urgency. Coriolanus is seeking power in a country that is in revolt over shortages of wheat, and the televised encounters with irate, unruly citizens are carbon copies of events we have seen in Manchester, Moscow, Athens and Damascus. Coriolanus, tragically, is a film for our time.

The play deploys language in very particular ways. It is a text short on soliloquys, the self-ruminating device that lets us see a character’s innermost desires and vulnerabilities. The soliloquy is a sort of self-generating psychiatrist’s couch. While Coriolanus is in dire need of one, his pride and personality make him an unlikely candidate for self-analysis. Fiennes and John Logan, his screenwriter, surgically remove the play’s only soliloquy; they want to keep the general away from language, and in the thick of things. This makes sense for a soldier who has earned his new name because of an act of reckless bravery in the battle for Corioles, where he single-handedly takes over a building filled with Volscian soldiers. Caius Marcius, general-in-deed, is newly born as Coriolanus, consul-in-aspiration.

If Hamlet’s problem is that he thinks too precisely on the event, Coriolanus’s failure is that he acts too quickly on every event. It is his virtue as a soldier and his flaw as a would-be politician. He has steroid courage and anorectic diplomacy. His intolerance for the people of Rome borders on contempt; his instincts and experience make him an oligarch, most certainly not a benevolent one. Before he can be proclaimed consul, he has to win the “voices” of the citizens. He is expected to display his battle wounds, a kind of pornography where scar tissue is shown instead of skin. His refusal to partake in this ritual, even at the urgings of his mother and his ally Menenius, makes him seem aloof, and provides the ammunition his opponents need to undermine his credibility and integrity.

It is appropriate that a man of action who distrusts language would overreact, on two separate occasions, to a single word. The first incident comes in his encounter with the rabble who, through the manipulations of a pair of tribunes, move from accepting him as Consul, to outright rejection and the accusation that he is a “traitor.” The second defining moment comes late in the play, when in response to his mother’s entreaties, Coriolanus has agreed to a capitulation that saves Rome. Aufidius, a tactician with a jugular instinct for weakness, and a man with whom Coriolanus has had a fragile alliance, accuses him of being a “boy.”

When the crowd calls him a traitor, it strikes only at his pride and provokes the betrayal of his country; but when his arch enemy, to whom he has a strong homoerotic attraction, calls him a boy, the naming exposes a deeply repressed part of his psyche. His reaction to each of these words has devastating consequences. To the crowd, who has called for his banishment, he is contemptuous; he calls them “fragments” and then reverses the import of their rejection: “You common cry of curs,…whose loves I prize/As the dead carcasses of unburied men/That do corrupt my air, I banish you…/thus I turn my back:/There is a world elsewhere.” Fiennes is splendid in this scene; his countenance, a mixture of bewilderment and rage, already wears the creases of his planned revenge.

His reaction to Aufidius’s insult takes less time but has even more dramatic consequences. “Boy,” he repeats, and after calling the Volscian a “false hound,” goes on to insult the bravery of the soldiers who surround him. “If you have writ your annals true, ‘tis there,/That like an eagle in a dove-cote, I /Flutter’d your Volscians in Coriolies:/Alone I did it. Boy!” At this stage, Aufidius’s troops aren’t in a fluttering mood; Coriolanus’s fate has already been decided and his contemptuous insult settles the matter. They surround him, stabbing him repeatedly, until Aufidius moves into the frame. His embrace is fatal; he takes the dagger we see him whetting in front of a television screen at the beginning of the film, and thrusts it into Coriolanus’s body. The Roman undergoes the final intimacy at the hands of his hated, and hating, rival. Eros and Thanatos are dressed in the same battle fatigues.

Fiennes has delicately handled the complicated erotics of their relationship, and he connects it to Coriolanus’s mother love. In a remarkable scene, Volumnia dresses his wounds after he has returned from his victory at Corioles. The look in her eyes as she surveys the damage done to her son’s body falls somewhere between desire and worship, and it is decidedly uncomfortable. Not surprisingly, when his wife, Virgilia, walks into this scene, unannounced, she recoils as if she had discovered her husband in intimate congress with another woman. She quietly leaves the room, made aware that in the explosive and bloody world of Roman soldiering, a suture is worth a thousand words.

The next time we see Coriolanus being tended, Aufidius is the caregiver in his headquarters in Antium. During his self-imposed exile, Coriolanus has grown a beard and let his hair grow long. The look he has affected throughout his career is lean, his head shaven and hard as a skull. He is so unkempt when he first arrives to offer his vengeful service to the Volscian side, that he is unrecognizable. But once their partnership is decided, Coriolanus must become himself again, and it is Aufidius who takes the shears to his head. Barbering is not normally about intimacy but this grooming has a startling physical intensity. Coriolanus and Aufidius, arch enemies, are also lovers-in-waiting, and this scene doubles, and then replaces, the attentiveness paid by Volumnia to her son’s legion of wounds.

Coriolanius takes his place at the head of the Volscian army, and his presence is so potent that the Volscians begin to mimic him. A lieutenant warns Aufidius about his developing influence, “I do not know what witchcraft’s in him, but your soldiers use him as the grace ‘fore meat.” In camp, at night, Coriolanus sits in a barber chair, a mock throne, and oversees a scene of drinking, roughhousing and slo-dancing. He is surrounded by tattooed, glistening, muscle-shirted soldiers, one of them straddling a phallic cannon, like a cowboy. It is a scene of unmistakable skin-headed homoeroticism; Fight Club boys meeting the downriver crew in Apocalypse Now.

Throughout the film, Coriolanus is described in animal metaphors and he favours them himself. He describes Aufidius as “a lion that I am proud to hunt”; dismisses one of the tribunes as a “Triton of the minnows”; and tells the citizens he should be flattering that anyone who depends upon their favours, “swims with fins of lead.” His foes and friends alike assign him a menagerie identity; after having encountered his relentless pursuit of revenge against Rome, Menenius laments, “there is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger.” Aufidius, in assessing the damage he will do in battle says, “I think he’ll be to Rome/As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it/By sovereignty of nature.” But it is Menenius, his loyal, longtime friend who perceives in the apostate Roman, the animal truest to his nature. Coriolanus has a dragon tattoo on the back of his neck, a fitting emblem for a man who “fights dragon-like.” In a conversation with another soldier, Menenius measures the kind of change Coriolanus has undergone. “This Marcius is grown from man to dragon: he has wings; he’s more than a creeping thing.” This compelling, dangerous film moves like its namesake. It has wings, too and with them takes us on a dark and unsettling flight.