‘Coriolanus’: Fiennes in command in Bard tale

  • Wed Feb 1st, 2012 6:39pm
  • Life

By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic

Ralph Fiennes finally sheds himself of that Voldemort fellow and makes a feast of Shakespeare in his new movie. Although it might be true to say he hasn’t left Voldemort entirely behind.

Fiennes directs and stars in “Coriolanus,” one of the Bard’s infrequently performed plays, which has been adapted by “Gladiator” scribe John Logan. The actor has spotted a certain timeliness in the story, and accordingly sets it in the present day, somewhere in an alternate-history version of the Balkans.

He plays the title character, a great general so consumed by his militarism that he appears to have become a piece of machinery himself: Hairless, cruel, his blue eyes betraying no hint of human kindness, he piles up victories with grim determination. True, Coriolanus has a nose, but we might note a touch of the “Harry Potter” villain in there.

Alas, the very qualities that make him the ultimate warrior serve as his downfall when the general returns home. Offered up as a political prospect, Coriolanus can only snarl his contempt of the crowd (one of Shakespeare’s targets is the mob, who can be easily swayed by appeals to emotions and irrationality).

And so Coriolanus is shunned … but his skills might just lead to a second career, especially when the insurgents he’s been fighting all along need a good field commander.

As the leader of the opposition fighters, Gerard Butler brings some of his “300” swagger and a hearty physicality to his role. He doesn’t own the Shakespearian language in the way Ralph Fiennes does, but that can hardly be a knock: Fiennes is so fiendishly focused with the language, he commands attention with every phrase.

And speaking of fiendish focus, Vanessa Redgrave plays the mother of Coriolanus, who has her own steely ideas about his career. Redgrave starts slowly with the character, and builds to a stunning climax in a long scene in which she confronts her now-traitorous son in a do-or-die argument.

Poor Jessica Chastain, a fine actress in her own right (among her countless 2011 films: “The Tree of Life” and “The Help,” for which she’s Oscar nominated); she can’t help but pale next to Redgrave’s stature.

And then there’s Brian Cox, excellent in the role of a mediator between Coriolanus and the rest of the world (a political handler, of sorts). Cox is terrific at bringing the story into the modern world; his delivery tweaks Shakespeare’s dialogue into sounding like it was written yesterday.

Of course, Shakespeare is always up to date; the issues of “Coriolanus” are richly relevant to politics and war today. As director, Fiennes does clever work bringing this to light, even if his style tends toward big close-ups for the larger moments (you can kind of tell an actor directed this). But it’s a strong adaptation, which fully earns its brutal, uncompromising ending.

“Coriolanus”

Ralph Fiennes directs and plays the title role in this adaptation of the Shakespeare play, which sets the action in the modern-day Balkans. The politics of the play have plenty of modern-day parallels, and the movie’s forceful, with strong supporting work by Brian Cox, Gerard Butler and especially Vanessa Redgrave.

Rated: R for violence.

Showing: Uptown.