Review: Ralph Fiennes Gets the Bard Right in Modernized ‘Coriolanus’

Vanessa Redgrave's military stage-mom steals the show in Voldemort's directorial debut

Taking a Shakespeare play out of its original period and context is dangerous business. Get it right — figure out what’s modern and fresh about the centuries-old text — and you wind up with something as enduring as “West Side Story.” Blowing it leads to embarrassments like Julie Taymor’s recent mishmash “The Tempest”; anyone with the chutzpah to tackle the Bard and futz about with the work risks creating the memorably awful play-within-the-movie from “Hamlet 2.”

“Coriolanus,” the directorial debut of actor Ralph Fiennes, gets it right.

Featuring battle sequences with the same immediacy as the last decade’s worth of Iraq/Afghanistan movies, and scenes where it feels perfectly natural for iambic pentameter to be coming out of the mouths of cable-news pundits, this “Coriolanus” fits perfectly into the modern world and raises questions that are as tough for contemporary viewers as they were for the groundlings at the Globe.

None are more feared or ferocious on the battlefield than Caius Martius (Fiennes, more Voldemort than English Patient here) — and why shouldn’t he be, after being raised by Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), a woman so enthralled with her son’s wounds and wartime valor as to be the military equivalent of a Stage Mom, with a dash of Angela Lansbury’s mommy-monster from “The Manchurian Candidate” thrown in for good measure.

After leading a valiant skirmish and facing enemy warrior Aufidius (Gerard Butler, breaking his streak by appearing in an actual good movie) in hand-to-hand combat, Martius returns to “a city known as Rome” in triumph and is given the titles of general and Coriolanus. Pushed by Volumnia, he pursues a position as consul, but while the senate adores him, the people in the street still resent him for withholding grain from the starving non-military population years earlier.

Goaded by Martius’ rivals, the populus Romanus refuse to give Martius their endorsement, and he’s banished from the city, leading him to turn to Aufidius to seek revenge.

Those of a Fascistic bent have always read into “Coriolanus” because of its anti-hero’s despising of rule by the common people — the play was banned in pre-Vichy France for just that reason — but Fiennes doesn’t use this as an excuse to give us another Shakespeare play retooled as 1930s cautionary tale. (Ian McKellen made a splendid jack-booted Richard III, while Alan Cumming’s Saturninus, in Julie Taymor’s “Titus,” ruled his kingdom smack-dab in Mussolini’s old stomping grounds.) And while Fiennes is hardly pro-brownshirt, he does make us ponder the logic of exiling the city’s fiercest defender in a time of war.

Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan (“Hugo,” “Rango”) blend the Bard with talk shows, automatic weapons, and riot shields without ever awkwardly drawing attention to the juxtaposition, and the first-time director proves himself exceedingly capable at drawing out many powerful performances, not least of all his own.

But even with the fine acting by Fiennes, Butler, Jessica Chastain (if you’re keeping score, this is her sixth movie of 2011) and Brian Cox, “Coriolanus” belongs to Redgrave, who’s not so much an actress here as a force of nature. She dominates the proceedings and everyone in them without resorting to histrionics or theatrical trickery, and it’s one of the year’s most indelible performances.

“Coriolanus” may lack the verve of the 1995 “Richard III,” much less the exuberant rage of Derek Jarman’s ACT UP–era spin on Marlowe’s “Edward II,” but it’s nonetheless the best kind of modernization, one that reminds us of both the eternal power of great literature and the tragically cyclical nature of history itself.