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March 16th 2012 print

Peter Smith

Coriolanus and the mob

I went to see Coriolanus the film adaption of one of Shakespeare’s least known plays at the beautiful art deco Orpheum theatre in Cremorne in Sydney. 


I went to see Coriolanus the film adaption of one of Shakespeare’s least known plays at the beautiful art deco Orpheum theatre in Cremorne in Sydney.


The film directed by, and starring, Ralph Fiennes, though opening in Australia only this month, premiered more than a year ago in the Berlin International Film Festival; so there are many straightforward reviews of the film available. Let me add a political dimension.

I liked the movie and liked Coriolanus the character a lot; perhaps too much. It is interesting that David Stratton (At the Movies) did not like him at all. “Coriolanus is an extremely confronting character. I didn’t warm to him at all, in fact quite the reverse.”

The plot is simple enough. Caius Martius, later given the name Coriolanus to honour his vanquishing of the Volscian army under General Aufidius, has earned the people’s displeasure by guarding stores of corn during the time of the corn riots in Rome. This is a backdrop. Later, for his victory over Aufidius, the Senate confers on him the title Consul; subject to the people’s approval. Herein lies the rub.

The people’s approval requires him go against his nature. He must display his wounds and show his love for them. He, on the other hand, is a proud and private man who makes light of his wounds and abhors false displays. It is true that he is, underneath it all, contemptuous of the mob. But there is no shame in that. There have been many mobs in history, including now the OWS mobs, and no good has come of them. He is in short a man to be admired; at least by some of us.

Enter the Tribunes (officials of the assembly of the common people) Brutus and Sicinius (the latter played appropriately furtively and creepily by James Nesbit who you may remember playing Mr Hyde in somewhat similar fashion in a recent BBC television series adaptation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). They are intent on undoing Coriolanus by manipulating public opinion against him. He is simply not vainglorious or boastful enough to be a creature of the common people. And how fickle the people prove to be; first lauding him for his exploits and then easily turned against him. Surely Shakespeare meant us to dislike Brutus and Sicinius and admire Coriolanus. David Stratton take note, I suppose; but it goes further than that.

Coriolanus stands for something noble. He epitomises a conservative hero. He is self-reliant and replete with individual spirit. He eschews appealing to the fickle multitude. Here I am, he says, I have done my duty and spilt my blood and warrant my reward.

That is not sufficient for the rabble rousers Brutus and Sicinius or the mob that they mould to their purpose. He must share and debase himself to prove his worthiness. Brutus and Sicinius would undoubtedly fit the bill as socialist heroes. They are Ellsworth Tooheys to Coriolanus’ Howard Roark. Maybe Ayn Rand read Coriolanus before writing The Fountainhead. Even if she didn’t, the comparison is compelling.

Ralph Fiennes was already something of favourite of mine since his 2008 role in the movie In Bruges. I now suspect he is one of those closet conservatives that Charleston Heston said existed among the Hollywood set. Hopefully I won’t be disappointed; as I was when I discovered that fine actor Sean Penn was not just left, which I expected, but loony left. It shouldn’t matter. But it does because politics, and overwhelmingly left-wing politics, constantly intrudes into filmmaking. You think you are watching a movie about morally-challenged financiers or another catastrophe movie and it’s really about exploitative capitalism or global warming, etc.

Banished by the mob, Coriolanus joins Aufidius and by successive military victories threatens Rome. The ending is predictable for a Shakespearian tragedy. Go see the movie or read the play – with an eye to the politics.

Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics