Gerard Butler as Tullus Aufidius and Ralph Fiennes as Caius Martius Coriolanus… (Larry D. Horricks / The Weinstein…)
Actor, and now director, Ralph Fiennes has given us war and politics on a grand operatic scale in his ambitious and at times thrilling rendering of one of Shakespeare's lesser known works -- "Coriolanus."
For his first foray behind the camera, Fiennes has started off right by surrounding himself with a superlative cast including Vanessa Redgrave, Gerard Butler, Jessica Chastain and an exceptional Brian Cox. He has taken the title role for himself, Caius Martius Coriolanus, in the story of a war hero wading into the political arena only to be undone by his hubris.
In a far riskier move, the director, working with screenwriter John Logan ("Gladiator," "The Aviator"), has chosen to stay with the syntax of the play while updating the rest of the production, which is both the charm and the challenge of "Coriolanus." But if you give yourself over to that clash of style and sensibility, something magical happens as the power, the prescience and the precision of Shakespeare's words take hold of modern problems.
The original "Coriolanus" layered on an abundance of conflicts for Martius to grapple with. Even with Logan's surgical streamlining of the play, more than enough remains. There are the great expectations of an autocratic mother, Volumnia (Redgrave), coupled with pressure from his ambitious political ally, Menenius (Cox). There is his sworn enemy, guerrilla fighter Tullus (Butler), who is both nemesis and savior. And testing his patience at every turn is the constituency of ordinary citizens that Martius disdains.
As we follow the rise and fall of a great man, those troubles fade in the face of his own demons -- pride, arrogance, righteousness, surety -- which Fiennes brings to scorching life on-screen, spitting out his rage with such force the words seem likely to damage literally as well as figuratively.
Originally set in ancient Rome, the filmmakers have kept the city name but time-shifted ahead to a place that looks like any number of 21st century war-ravaged Eastern European countries (Serbia provided the shooting location). Images and news updates flicker on TV screens. Soldiers wear fatigues, drive tanks, carry machine guns. On a distant front there is urban warfare -- streets filled with burning cars, the rapid blasts of machine gun fire, the search for Tullus' rebel forces, with some fine hand-held camera work keeping it intensely real. Back in Rome, a grain shortage has driven the locals to the streets with Belgian actress Lubna Azabal, so memorable in "Incendies," the defining face of the angry crowd. Meanwhile, Martius' hero's welcome and the quick political ascent that it was supposed to accord him have evaporated in the face of the discontent. Loss of public confidence, damaged career, redemption as a bitter pill -- all of these very contemporary issues are pared down to their essence by making prime choices of Shakespeare's verse, then staged with a gritty vigor that keeps pulling you in. The protests have an Occupy Wall Street-or-L.A.-or-wherever feel. The military skirmishes are made absolutely riveting between the inventive choreography of the action and director of photography Barry Ackroyd's (Oscar nominated for a similar war effort, 2009's "The Hurt Locker") ability to capture the bombed-out grace found in the rubble that remains.
That grace extends to the way in which the actors embrace the angst of "Coriolanus" as well. Redgrave plays a mother obsessed with duty to country and family with a quietly damning dignity. Watching her bend the rigid Martius, by bending her knee without bowing to his will, is at once chilling and moving.
Chastain, who has had such a remarkable year already, one that has included a comical blond in "The Help" and mothers variously tested in "Take Shelter" and "The Tree of Life," is pure sunshine here as Martius' devoted wife Virgilia. The actress invests the language with such a lyrical lightness, it's as if she grew up quoting Shakespeare over breakfast. Meanwhile, Butler is a nice surprise, handling the nuances of his rebel fighter as well as the knife he favors for fighting. It ranks as one of his most affecting performances to date.
But "Coriolanus" belongs to Cox. The veteran character actor ("Troy," "Braveheart," Bournes "Identity" and "Supremacy," and so on) steals the show as the wily politician Menenius. It is delicious to watch him coaxing and cajoling with the slick finesse of a D.C. lobbyist. Saying volumes with the arch of a brow and the tilt of his head, using a mirthless laugh for punctuation, Cox is the grease that keeps the wheels of this complicated narrative moving along.
The pot is kept at a boil pretty much throughout, a level of intensity that at times can be wearing. But Fiennes ultimately knows to play to Shakespeare's greatest strength, that incisive understanding of all the ways that humans so tragically, and predictably, repeat mistakes. In doing so, he has taken "Coriolanus" from little known to virtually unforgettable.
MPAA rating: R for some bloody violence
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
Playing: At the Landmark, West Los Angeles