Coriolanus is a serious film. An adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-performed plays, it’s the directorial debut of noted thespian and boy wizard-scourge Ralph Fiennes.
Set in a contemporary Balkan-like state, the film deals with issues of authority, fascism, and democratic rule, whilst containing lots of shouting from Fiennes and harrowing battle scenes courtesy of Barry Ackroyd, cinematographer of The Hurt Locker. Alongside Fiennes as the eponymous General, the cast features a rafter of excellent actors from Vanessa Redgrave to Brian Cox. Everything about the film suggests a heavy-going, rewarding cinema-going experience. That is, until you get about half an hour in and Jon Snow shows up.
In a small role Snow plays the Messenger, who in the film is re-imagined as a Jon Snow-like news anchor. His appearance brings appreciative laughs from the audience, but its incongruity must take them out of the film at the same time. Instead of reflecting on the scene and its place in the narrative, it’s difficult to do anything but wonder what on Earth is Jon Snow doing speaking iambic pentameter. It just seems so awfully silly in a film that is trying to be anything but.
Snows cameo, aside from causing much head-scratching, illuminates one of the more pressing questions in modern cinema: why do filmmakers insist on using actual news presenters in the middle of their fictional films? If everyone else in a film is an actor, why not the newscaster too? It’s hard to think of any comparable real-life figures that are represented in the same way.
One possible answer for this trend is the inexplicable blind spot that filmmakers seem to have in creating newscasters who seem real and that can convey the natural sense of authority that’s required of them. So often a fictional newscaster will feel slightly off in ways that are difficult to articulate. The language of television news is so ingrained on our unconscious that the slightest deviation announces itself loudly, and the audience is reminded that they’re watching a film.
In light of that, the logic of using real presenters seems understandable: they appear genuine to the audience because they are, and additionally there’s the novelty of seeing a familiar face appear in the middle of the film. While that’s true, and may work in the case something light-hearted, the approach completely out of place when it comes to a film like Coriolanus, one that is very serious indeed and is attempting to ask big questions.
The problem is that having real people play themselves in the middle of a fictional film detracts from the believability of that film. It’s possible for Ralph Fiennes to play Coriolanus and for us to accept him in that role, but if Jon Snow is inhabiting Jon Snow in the same film then all it does is remind the person watching that he has a whole life outside of the film’s fictional construct, one of actual news presenting and not wearing poppies and all of his other activities.
Photo: Coriolanus director, Ralph Fiennes. Samir Hussein © 2011 Getty Images
And yet, Coriolanus is Fiennes’ first film, so perhaps he should be granted some leniency. Directing a film is hard enough without having to star in it at the same time, all shouty and covered in blood. Perhaps the sight of Jon Snow and his colourful socks was all that got him through the days. Like Coriolanus sparing the Rome that banished him, one must learn to forgive.