Coriolanus: film review – BBC, 1983

In 1983, as part of the sixth and penultimate season of their Complete Works of Shakespeare series, the BBC filmed Coriolanus. Elijah Moshinsky, who had earlier directed All’s Well That End’s Well, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and (and our next play) Cymbeline, and would help one of the final installments, Love’s Labor’s Lost, was in the director’s chair for this one.

look at that face: bemused arrogance…

While the costuming is Elizabethan-lite and the setting obviously on a sound-stage (as per usual in this series), there is a certain claustrophobic feel to the cinematography–seemingly smaller sets and tight close-ups. Moshinsky has been quoted as saying this is to reflect the closed-off mentality of Martius. Working counter to his negative view of the people, however, is the way the director stages the opening: instead of an unruly mob, we see a small group of calm citizens discussing next steps; even when Menenius enters, he too is calm, relaxed. It’s strange to have a start to this play with so little urgency.

That uncomfortable balance of intensity but lack of urgency is found in the  editing of the film–not the text but the rhythm and locales of the production. Scenes don’t begin with character entrances, but with them already together, giving the impression of joining something already in progress. Midway through scenes, without skipping any text, Moshinsky will change locales. For example, midway through the opening scene, when the senators enter in the text, the film’s scene shifts to the senate itself; then when at the end of the scene, the senators exit in the text, but in the film we move again elsewhere for the scene with the two tribunes. You might think that these shifts would accelerate (at least the sense of) pacing of the piece, but this really isn’t the case. Because there aren’t many camera angle cuts within these sub-scenes, and Moshinsky blocks the action to minimize movement, the pace doesn’t feel quickened or forced, but rather relaxed. Again, that weird balance of opposites.

Performance-wise, Royal Shakespeare Company veteran Alan Howard plays Martius with a coiled intensity that is balanced by what feels at times is a bemused arrogance; in both, I found his performance (as weird as this sounds) overdone. Irene Worth’s Volumnia doesn’t come off as domineering as she does on the page (and certainly nothing close to the force of nature that is Vanessa Redgrave in the Fiennes version). It would be interesting to see her two subsequent stage Volumnias within the following half-decade (opposite Ian McKellen and–wait for it–Christopher Walken); I’m wondering how those performances differ from her restrained mother here. And Mike Gwilym (who we’ve seen as Love’s Labor’s Lost‘s Berowne, as well as Pericles) also seems to be playing a low-key version of Aufidius.

Moshinsky gives Howard’s Martius a few quasi-soliloquies (to make up for the almost total absence of them in the text) by having him to go into a voice-over in the middle of some of his speeches (during the siege of Corioles and when his family visits him in the Volscian camp, for example). It’s an interesting choice, but I’m not sure it pays off: I certainly don’t think it humanizes him or makes him any more sympathetic.

And now for the elephant in the room (or maybe that’s two horny elephants): while the Fiennes version seems to try to get a little Freudian with Martius and Volumnia’s bordering-on-Oedipal relationship, Moshinsky seems more interested in the homo-erotic aspect of the Martius/Aufidius relationship. In the battle for Corioles, the soldiers are in armor, but just a scene later, when Martius and Aufidius meet in combat, they’re bare-chested and sweaty-shiny, ending with the scene ending mid-choke. Later, when Martius joins Aufidius, the scene is played with Aufidius behind Martius, first beginning to choke Martius, but then caressing him, reaching inside his shirt. And the less said about Aufidius’ almost orgasmic stabbing of Martius (and his almost orgasmic death), the better. You all know me: I’m no purist nor prude, but Aufidius doesn’t raise his blade (bawdy pun TOTALLY intended) to Martius in the text; the conspirators kill him, Aufidius isn’t even armed. Look, I’m not saying there isn’t more than a little homo-eroticism in the play–there is–but this just felt ham-handed.

In the end, I feel about this film as it seems to me Moshinsky felt about it: ambivalent. Balanced, self-contradictory, restrained but somehow still over-the-top. If it’s a choice between this and the Fiennes version, go with Fiennes…it’s better, in my opinion, and more widely available.

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