Can a war movie be too beautiful? Thoughts on “Birdsong” and “Coriolanus”

Coriolanus, the Movie

My weekend (artistically at least) was dominated by stories of war. It began with the new Coriolanus movie on Friday, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes. Coriolanus is one of the great, sprawling tragedies of Shakespeare’s later career. One could almost call it cinematic. There are a lot of short, punchy scenes that flow into each other, conveying information and moving along a complicated plot. In that respect it resembles Anthony and Cleopatra, but is far less romantic. It is, at heart, the story of a man who becomes a war hero in a society where, it is generally assumed, that fits him for high political office. But to succeed as a consul he needs to court the favour of the people, something that due to his proud and austere temperament he is quite unable to do. The play can be opened out further in many different ways, and among these it is an examination of how difficult it is for a society based on warfare and the breeding of warriors to be anything other than dysfunctional. The personal tragedy of Coriolanus himself, a man who only really feels completely alive when he is locked in combat, mirrors this.

Coriolanus also contains one of Shakespeare’s greatest portraits of a mature woman, in the person of the hero’s formidable mother, Volumnia. Volumnia lives vicariously through her only child, all her energy channelled into pride in his military achievements. Her story is a fascinating deconstruction of the accepted ideal of the powerful Roman matron. I wonder, sometimes, if this was a story that had been in Shakespeare’s mind long before he actually wrote it, and if one of the reasons for that was that his portrait of a strong woman whose temperament had been warped by the need to succeed in a world dominated by ultra-masculine values was simply too provocative to put on stage until after Elizabeth’s reign had ended.

The intricate political plot is mirrored and contrasted with Coriolanus’s emotional journey. Locked in a dysfunctional relationship with both his mother and his homeland, he eventually finds intimacy and release in the arms (literally) of his sworn enemy, Aufidius. He defects to the other side after being banished from Rome, a situation brought on by his political ineptitude and inability to conceal his contempt for common humanity. The scene where he offers Aufidius his service, and by implication his love, is one of the most homoerotically charged that Shakespeare ever wrote.

When Coriolanus leads an assault on Rome his desire for revenge is sated but he finds himself caught in an impossible conflict of loyalties when his mother, wife and son come and plead with him to spare his native state. Eventually he capitulates, an act which destroys him and offers Volumnia an empty victory.

It is a story that can be updated easily; the main dilemma faced by a modern film-maker is how to make the hero’s political rise and fall credible without getting bogged down in the lengthy political scenes. Fiennes locates the action in a state called Rome, but actually resembling a Balkan battlefield of civil war. News bulletins and horse-trading in smoke-filled rooms move along the political plot and battle scenes are shot on grainy film with hand-held cameras. The result is a powerful portrait of the violence, mess and sheer destruction war inflicts on communities. I’ve seen bloodier war scenes in movies, but none bleaker. There are some astounding performances, particularly from Fiennes himself and from Vanessa Redgrave as a Volumnia cauterised of any emotion, measuring her love for her son by her pride in the number of scars he bears on his body.

Eddie Redmayne in Birdsong - can a World War One movie be too beautiful?

Watching Birdsong on Sunday was a great contrast, though its subject matter was also the way that warfare destroys the human spirit. I haven’t read Sebastian Faulks’ novel, which is very highly thought of, and perhaps because of this I found the characters somewhat flat and opaque. I wonder if it is possible for an adaptation to be too reverent? Birdsong proceeds at a glacial pace, all big close ups and emotional beats stretched out to breaking point. The odd thing was how little any of it engaged me emotionally, even when a bloke’s stomach was ripped open by a shell and he died in agony. I found Stephen impossible to like, or even to relate to, not only in the war scenes but in the earlier ones depicting the passionate affair that haunts him for the rest of his life (though the sex was undoubtedly hot and beautifully photographed).

There is definitely a set of aesthetic values associated with British period drama and I know Birdsong has already been highly praised. I found it tedious and felt a little guilty about my reaction. It is possible even for meticulously recreated shots of the Western Front to look too perfect, and too mired in cinematic cliche, and this effect is magnified when the characters don’t engage us. Ironic, since Birdsong is credited by many as having pioneered a new, realistic depiction of the First World War in fiction. It may be one of those dramas you can’t really appreciate without some knowledge of the original.

It’s not that the First World War in fiction fails to move me. Far from it. I’ve been powerfully affected by Owen and Sassoon’s poetry, and Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, in the latter case so much that I doubt if I could bear to watch the TV adaptation again. But that is because I was inside Vera’s head and heart – I know what she had lost, I understood her howl of despair and frustration when her selfish parents kept pestering her to come back from her work as a war nurse and keep house for them. I was so angry on her behalf, I could hardly bear it. And the punch-in-the-gut realisation, in the last scene of Blackadder Goes Forth, that all these rather daft and very real men were going over the top to their deaths has also remained with me:

It is also possible to convey both the pity and the horror in the simplest of language, accessible even to children, and this short, simple passage from War Horse says more, to me, than hours of the Flanders-porn of Birdsong:

Someone remembered it was Christmas morning, and they sang slow, tuneful carols all the way back. For the most part they were casualties blinded by gas and in their pain some of them cried, as they sang, for their lost sight. We made so many journeys that day and stopped only when the hospital could take no more.

It was already a starry night by the time we reached the farm. The shelling had stopped. There were no flares to light up the sky and blot out the stars. All the way along the lane not a gun fired. Peace had come for one night, one at least. The snow in the yard was crisped by the frost.

MICHAEL MORPURGO War Horse, p 86.

So simple. So incredibly moving. I’ve yet to see what Spielberg does with it, but that’s a tough act to follow.

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3 thoughts on “Can a war movie be too beautiful? Thoughts on “Birdsong” and “Coriolanus”

  1. I’ve read Birdsong and I’m currently re-reading it. Last night I cried so hard. It was just so unbearably sad. The televised version failed to move me at all.

    1. I felt really disappointed by it – so far at least. Very briefly, they spent far too much time on the love story, which is irritating because that aspect is secondary in the book. And it was so sanitised, whereas the book is grim. So although it may be a good story, it’s not Birdsong to me.

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