Friday, 4 January 2019

We don't talk enough about Will Young's Coriolanus documentary

Because I am extremely intelligent, intellectual and (*checks thesaurus*) erudite and stuff, I recently watched Ralph Fiennes' 2011 film Coriolanus, which is based on a play by William Shakespeare that, according to every single review, is one of his lesser known works. But I had heard of it, because I am highbrow, bookish and perspicacious. In fairness I had only heard of it because Ralph Fiennes made a film of it, but that - as I think you'll find Emilia remarked to Desdemona in Othello - is neither here nor there.

What is both here and there is that after watching Coriolanus on DVD (which is an archaic form of physical media, used for storing audio and visual data on, that we used to have in the olden days), I ventured to the Special Features section. This is something DVDs - and their high definition successors, "Blu-rays" - included to enhance your enjoyment and understanding of a film. In one of many tragedies of the 21st century, streaming has more or less done away with the joy of the Special Features, thus denying the average viewer the chance to witness what I - a proud user of physical media - stumbled across next.

For there, listed casually among the numerous extras (two is a number) as if it was a perfectly normal thing to have on a DVD of a Shakespeare film, was something calling itself Behind The Scenes Of Coriolanus With Will Young. Here's proof, for anyone who quite understandably thinks I'm making this up:
Yes, that's right:
Well now. This was unexpected. I had just sat through two hours of some pret-ty cerebral stuff, let me tell you, and I was not prepared for a deep dive into its creation by the winner of series one of Pop Idol. But, as Shakespeare said in his bestseller The Bible, judge not lest ye be judged. I decided to give Will the benefit of the doubt and see what he had to bring to the party.
Frost / Nixon. Paxman / Howard. Young / Fiennes.

The half-hour documentary begins with sombre music over establishing shots of Belgrade, where Coriolanus was partly shot, followed by images of soldiers sneaking through streets and shooting at an unseen enemy. Don't panic though, we haven't been plunged into the Yugoslav Wars of 1991-99; these are merely actors, acting in a film. A film called Coriolanus. Having set the tone as one of gloom and dread and with the very real prospect of Slobodan Milošević doing something unspeakable just round the corner, with no warning at all the film suddenly cuts to chirpy pop-moppet Will Young standing in the street and looking confused, like he fears he may have accidentally wandered into an actual war.

A few more behind-the-scenes shots follow, before Will properly introduces the documentary, and himself, informing us that "it's my first time being involved in the production of a film". Now I have nothing against Will - in fact a few years ago I was gifted a coaster bearing his cherubic face as a birthday present, and to this day I still place piping hot mugs of tea on the Young countenance - but I had to admit to total bafflement regarding his suitability for the role of presenter of a Making Of documentary about a film based on a lesser-known Shakespeare play, directed by and starring one of our leading thespians. I mean, was nobody with a little more appropriate gravitas available? Was Derek Jacobi on holiday? Was Nigel Havers too expensive? Had Pam St Clement taken the phone off the hook?

What Will hadn't mentioned, and never does in the twenty-five minutes his documentary lasts, is that he was an executive producer on Coriolanus. That's all he needed to say to ease my troubled mind, but presumably out of modesty he withheld that vital scrap of information which would have made everything clearer. I had to find it out myself later, and while that was a pity, I did unearth the fact that he decided to invest in the film because he basically had buckets of cash lying around and no idea what to do with it. How he arrived at the decision to spunk it on a Shakespeare adaptation and not, say, Anything Is Possible: The Will Young Movie, I have no idea. If you're reading this Will, do get in touch and let me know.

The documentary proceeds in the way most of these things do, with each Head Of Department explaining what they do to an incredulous Will Young. His delight at being on a film set is infectious, and his puppy-dog innocence is charming and endearing, which is lovely but only increases the sense that someone like Patrick Stewart should be asking the questions instead. But then Will literally asks the film's military advisor if the actors shooting at each other ARE USING BLANKS, and you realise that that ferocious line of questioning would simply never have occurred to Sir Pat. Nor would that venerable officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire have dared to tell Coriolanus' make-up artist that "you have the best voice EVER, I think you should do the voiceover for the movie in the cinemas!" It is unclear what Will means by this but by God he is excited about it.
Later in the documentary, Fiennes' co-star Gerard Butler - whose association with a Shakespeare adaptation is almost as unlikely as Will Young's - tries to steal the Leave Right Now singer's thunder by recounting an unbelievably shit practical joke that he got someone else to play on a fellow actor, but we're not fooled. This isn't your party Butler, this is Will Young's party. Perhaps inspired by the bearded Scottish man's tomfoolery, Will later tries to get each interviewee to say something nasty about Ralph Fiennes, but to no avail. Eventually Production Designer Ricky Eyres ("aka Rick", Will says, doing finger-quotes around 'Rick' as if it's the maddest variant of 'Ricky' he's ever come across) capitulates, unconvincingly describing Fiennes as "murder", and Will's pleasure at pulling off this mischief is palpable.

Another trivia nugget that goes unmentioned is that Will had a cameo in the film which was cut for reasons which may or may not be quite obvious. Referring to himself in the third person in another interview I had to find myself, Will says: "There were all these acting greats, and then Will Young pops up to say a few lines. It just didn't work." Is he being too hard on himself? Difficult to say, but bear Will Young's assessment of Will Young in mind as you watch the clip below, which is my absolute favourite moment in the documentary: an utterly astonishing vignette, which is neither introduced nor explained. It is simply allowed to exist in the middle of a documentary about Ralph Fiennes' brutal, brooding adaptation of William Shakespeare's politically-charged play Coriolanus.

I urge you to watch that as many times as possible to truly appreciate it to its fullest.

There's plenty more to enjoy in Behind The Scenes Of Coriolanus With Will Young, but I've given enough away for free as it is. As far as I can tell you can't stream it, so you're just going to have to invest in an actual hard copy of the film if you want to bask in its oddness. It might be a complete and total mismatch of presenter and subject matter, but I have nothing but respect for Will Young for financing a perfectly good movie, making a short film about it and - perhaps above all - resisting the urge to lean into camera and, with a cheeky grin, chuckle about the film's title containing the word "anus".

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