Film Review: Coriolanus

Director and star Ralph Fiennes' modern-day version of one of Shakespeare's less familiar plays charts the rise and fall of a Roman general whose martial skills fail to prepare him for the blood sport of politics and features powerhouse performances ac

Coriolanus unfolds in an alternate present, in "a place calling itself Rome," mired in an ongoing war with the neighboring Volscians. Having distinguished himself during the siege of the Volscian stronghold Coriolus, General Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes) returns home to the kind of acclaim that launches political careers, and while Martius doesn't give a damn about politics, his strong-willed mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), does. Since Volumnia has been the engine of his success for as long as he can remember, Martius submits once again to her ambitions.

Unfortunately, he's not only fundamentally uninterested in politics but also supremely ill-suited to it. Even the benevolent mentoring of longtime family friend Menenius Agrippa (Brian Cox), a senator who wields considerable influence and is happy to use it for Martius' benefit, can't counter the general's truculent demeanor. He's more comfortable with deeds than words, has no natural gift for glad-handing and even less for dissembling. And to top it all off, he's no man of the people…in fact, he has nothing but contempt for the people, a fact career politicians Sicinius and Brutus (James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson) don't hesitate to use against him. By the time they're done whispering poison in the public's collective ear, Martius not only has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning elected office but has been banished from the very city he's spent his life defending.

Wounded and furious, Martius seeks out Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), the leader of the Volscian rebels, and offers his services: If the people of Rome don't want him as an ally, he intends to show them what he's like as an enemy.

Like all Shakespeare's plays, Coriolanus is astonishingly au courant; taken together, they're Exhibit A in any defense of the notion that times change but people don't. And though screenwriter John Logan abridges the original play, he wisely leaves the language alone. Fiennes' greatest accomplishment as a director lies in having cast performers who can speak Shakespeare's dialogue as though it were ordinary—if unusually graceful—speech without actorly flourishes. The result is mesmerizing, muscular without being coarse, and eloquent without seeming mannered or artificial, and the movie would be a great introduction to Shakespeare for viewers who haven't yet taken the plunge.