Mama’s Boy, Daddy’s Girl

‘Coriolanus’ & ‘The Iron Lady’

Coriolanus—that sublime numbskull, that Roman Achilles revealed as an Oedipal nut-job, that overgrown Boy Scout turned Benedict Arnold when his fellow citizens, fearing his tyranny, drive him away—was perfectly summed up by literary critic Marvin Mudrick: “He’s like a great dancer or athlete, exciting to think about, paralyzing to meet, terrific to watch in action, but you wouldn’t want to have to live with him.” Now Ralph Fiennes has brought Shakespeare’s Coriolanus to the screen, making his debut as a director and playing the title role. Even though the film retains less than half of Shakespeare’s poetry, it succeeds in transmitting the play’s disabused vision of politics, war glory, brain-fogging pride, and smothering motherhood.

Fiennes’s modernization of the play evokes the Yugoslavian civil war of the 1990s (he filmed in Serbia), and this choice isn’t a mere bow to topicality. The upside of this approach is that the strife between the Romans and the Volsces is no longer enacted by figures from some ancient bas-relief but by soldiers familiar to us from news clips, men driven by ethnic hatreds that began many generations ago. They don’t use drones to bomb shadows on a monitor but instead shoot bullets into skulls a few inches away and stab and strangle with gusto. It isn’t just land-grabbing or power-shifting that’s at stake here, or even the triumph of one religion over another. It’s the lust of tribe to wipe out tribe, the sort of atavism that prompts Coriolanus’s mother, Volumnia, to praise her killing-machine darling this way: “Death, that dark spirit, in’s nervy arm doth lie; / Which, being advanc’d, declines, and then men die.” By placing the action in the one part of Europe that has recently seen ethnocentric violence, Fiennes has achieved the kind of immediacy Shakespeare modernizations often aim at but usually miss.

But there is also a downside to the new setting. The Rome of Shakespeare’s play is a capital far from the battlefront. And so, however grave the Volscian threat, the Roman populace feels free to riot for food while threatening to lynch its best general. The movie’s capital, on the other hand, looks so raddled and besieged that even populist demagogues might hesitate to get rid of a war hero like Coriolanus. (Remember that the British waited for World War II to wind down before they dumped Churchill.) The Balkan locale may vivify the scenes of war but it smudges the politics of the story.

The severely abridged script by John Logan (Gladiator, Hugo) gives the novice director elbowroom for powerful visuals, and Fiennes knows how to clarify tricky sections of the script. Scholars have puzzled over why Coriolanus shouts, “Oh me alone!” to his huzzahing troops when they lift him to their shoulders. Is he asking to be left alone or is he agreeing with them that he is the only flavor of the month? But in Fiennes’s staging, when the troops fail to respond to a battle order, the line becomes a reproach: Am I suppose to do this all alone? Eastern European cafés prove the perfect place for senators to bargain and bicker, and the gloomy, lamp-lit headquarters of the Volscian general Aufidius reinforces the sense of degradation Coriolanus feels at having to beg his old enemy for a post. Meanwhile, the CNN-like cable channel keeping track of Coriolanus’s career eliminates the need for messengers running on and off stage.

I was repeatedly struck by how the almost geometric starkness of certain scenes transcends era and nationality: Coriolanus and Aufidius, facing each other like magnetic poles, discover that their macho mutual hatred has turned into macho mutual love; Volumnia guilt-tripping her son as she pleads with him not to destroy Rome. These scenes and others redeem the hoary clichés about Shakespeare’s universality.

The cast is superb. Menenius, the Daniel Patrick Moynihan of 450 BC, is a role that has been waiting for Brian Cox, who fills the character with his unique mixture of charm and wariness. Gerard Butler, a good actor usually foundering in junk movies, comes into his own as Aufidius, a strong man sickened by his own viciousness but still acquiescing in it. Virgilia, the hero’s wife, can disappear on stage (“my gracious silence,” Coriolanus calls her), but Jessica Chastain benefits from the close-ups Fiennes gives her to convey a spiritually bruised woman, abashed by her husband’s bloodstained grandeur and suffocated by a mother-in-law from hell. Vanessa Redgrave’s Volumnia is a woman so hungry for proxy power and reflected glory—and so certain of getting it—that she appears serene, and is all the more monstrous for that. This is the first film role in years to evoke the depths of Redgrave’s talent.

As Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes doesn’t allow his character any mitigating glamour. He’s a skinhead writ large, a thug cursed with internal crevices of self-doubt. His voice hasn’t the clarion brightness of Olivier’s or the Celtic groundswell of Burton’s (the two actors widely regarded as the greatest Coriolanuses of the last century); it’s a bleat that can suddenly harden into a jackhammer’s metallic rage. You feel that Fiennes’s Coriolanus keeps killing in order not to commit suicide, but the film’s final moments provide an instruction manual on getting other people to commit your suicide.

Wielding a handbag instead of a sword, Margaret Thatcher could be every bit as doughty and as mulish as Coriolanus, and in The Iron Lady Meryl Streep gives Thatcher Shakespearean size. Moments from this performance—gestures, glances, inflections—stick in the memory the way a catchy tune fastens itself to the inner ear. Responding to Alexander Haig’s patronizing objection to her decision to go to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands (and to his insinuation that a woman can’t understand war), Streep’s voice whooshes down to a classy mezzo profundo that vocally stiff-arms the American and lays him out. And when she informs the secretaries of her cabinet that she knows the real whining about her tax policy is coming from them, not the populace, the “gotcha” smile on the actress’s face is like a mousetrap snapping down on a rodent. I foresee a time in the near future when female comic-impressionists will thrive on this performance the way their male colleagues have feasted on Brando’s Don Corleone and George C. Scott’s Patton.

Are scriptwriter Abi Morgan and director Phyllida Lloyd clear about the good and the ill Thatcher did for England? No. They register the outrage her non-negotiations with trade unions and the IRA provoked, and the acclaim she won for the victory over the Argentine junta, but at no point does this biopic show a particular action or policy as ultimately vindicated or discredited. Apparently they decided to leave such judgments to the historians and instead depict the social vision behind Thatcher’s political goals and the energy she brought to bear in achieving them.

The outline of that vision is rapidly and all too glibly sketched. Young Thatcher (played with a bit too much open-mouthed naïveté by Alexandra Roach before Streep takes over the role) hero-worships her father, a grocer and small-town mayor who espoused the classic nineteenth-century liberal ideals of self-reliance and unimpeded competition. Margaret perceives her mother, meanwhile, as mousey in manner and mingy with parental encouragement. We get it: Thatcher, never a feminist, has so internalized the father’s expectations (“Make me proud of you, Maggie”) that she must invade the boys club of national politics. In her drive and fierce intransigence, she not only out-machos all the men in her party but becomes scornful of their caution and clubbiness, while her family background “in trade” makes her resentful of their sense of privilege. In the movie’s riskiest, most judgmental scene, Thatcher appears to crack up during a cabinet meeting, humiliating the deputy prime minister, Geoffrey Howe, for allowing spelling errors in an agenda outline. “Are you unwell?” she keeps asking him sarcastically, but Streep’s combustibility and the deliberate jaggedness of the editing indicate who is really unwell.

Is there an antifeminist undercurrent in this film? I believe it only seems so because the female filmmakers did not include any women who could match Thatcher’s drive while also displaying a reasonable willingness to compromise. (Were Morgan and Lloyd ever tempted to use Shirley Williams of the Liberal Party as a counterweight?)

Framing the story of Thatcher’s political career is the less glibly told story of one significant day in her retirement. With her husband Denis (the always magnificent Jim Broadbent) dead, her son in South Africa, and her daughter Carol (nice work by Olivia Colman) trying to care for, and rein in, her near-senescent mother, Lady Thatcher ambles about the house, chatting with the ghost of Dennis, signing copies of her memoirs, and occasionally evading her gentle warders to shop for groceries. Certain words and objects recall the great events of her leadership, and flashbacks to them compose the main body of the movie.

Some critics have decried the portrayal of the retired Thatcher suffering from dementia; they consider it a mean diminishment of a lioness in winter. I do not agree. The aim here is the same as Shakespeare’s in King Lear: to show what happens when a vital, devouring intellect is betrayed by nature. Neither Lear nor this film’s Thatcher is completely gaga. Rather, they are self-aware and desperately struggling against the mental walls closing in on them, and in these struggles there is nobility. What makes Thatcher’s plight particularly moving is that she recognizes her chats with the dead Dennis as a symptom of senility and decides she must part with him in order to preserve what remains of her intellect and dignity. So, with the same ruthlessness she displayed toward her political rivals, she lovingly sends her husband’s shade packing. On screen at least, Thatcher as Everywoman confronting mortality proves more compelling than Thatcher the Superwoman.

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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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