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A Very Top Dog to the Commonalty

Coriolanus (2011)

Larry D. Horricks/The Weinstein Company

You can tell a lot about an actor by the vanity projects he or she undertakes, by which we mean the films an actor self-finances once he or she has made it big in Hollywood. Some actors choose to take small parts in defiant anti-blockbusters, such as when Ewan McGregor followed “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” with “Young Adam,” about a raping, stealing, murdering canal-boat worker in 1950s Glasgow. Other times an actor will take his money to direct something, such as when Samantha Morton used the clout of her Oscar nominations to direct “The Unloved,” about a girl abandoned to the British foster-care system.

So whatever Ralph Fiennes decided to use his Voldemort paychecks for would be interesting. He’s brought one of Shakespeare’s earliest and weakest plays to the screen, set it in a modern, unnamed Eastern bloc country (filmed in Serbia with a mainly Serbian crew) and showed someone shot in the head within the first five minutes. “Coriolanus” does not feel like the work of a first-time director. Mr. Fiennes pulls it off triumphantly. He’s made a historical curiosity relevant now, when our cities are in uproar and the citizens have taken to the streets.

Baz Luhrmann’s ’90s update of “Romeo + Juliet” set the standard for freshening Shakespeare for a young, modern audience. With “Coriolanus,” Mr. Fiennes has done the same thing in a way that will better appeal to teenage boys. But what will make the movie successful is its peculiar timing. The opening march — led by Arab-Israeli Ashraf Barhom and Belgian-Spanish-Moroccan Lubna Azabal — brings unarmed crowds up against well-shielded soldiers in full riot gear. Later, when Coriolanus (Mr. Fiennes) goes to a hard-used marketplace to speak directly with the people, multiple voices remind him, “The people are the city.”

“Coriolanus” is about a Roman soldier named Caius Martius, in charge of quelling the city’s bread riots. The people are in uproar; and when the neighboring state of Volscia uses this moment of weakness to attack, Martius leads a hugely successful assault on the Volscian city of Corioles. The resounding victory gives him the new name of Coriolanus; and he is awarded the leadership of the Roman senate. But it soon becomes clear that, although he is willing to kill for the people, he is not willing to listen to anyone else when it comes time to rule.

Mr. Fiennes is very much at the center of the action, but he has been smart enough to fill the other parts with expert actors who can handle the combination of Shakespearean dialogue and machine-gun fire. Gerard Butler as Tullus Aufidius, head of the Volscian army, is to our surprise more than a match for him. Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia, Coriolanus’s hawk of a mother, was clearly the only choice; Jessica Chastain as Coriolanus’s overwhelmed wife can only struggle to keep up (which is not really her fault, as Ms. Redgrave as Volumnia could eat all the other characters for breakfast and the rest of Shakespeare for lunch). James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson are also outstanding as the career politicians who recognize and then act on the danger that Coriolanus in charge presents to Rome. The problems with the script are Shakespeare’s, but Mr. Fiennes circumvents this as best as possible with modern street-war settings — exploding buses, squadrons going door-to-door in abandoned apartment buildings — contrasted with TV news updates (wittily read by British news anchors) and politicos in crisp suits. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd also shot “The Hurt Locker,” in which Mr. Fiennes had a memorable cameo, and “Coriolanus” owes its sense of street warfare and peacetime awkwardness to him.


Opens on Dec. 2 in New York and Los Angeles and on Jan. 20, 2012 in Britain.

Directed by Ralph Fiennes; written by John Logan, based on the play by William Shakespeare; director of photography, Barry Ackroyd; edited by Nicolas Gaster; music by Ilan Eshkeri; production design by Ricky Eyres; costumes by Bojana Nikitovic; produced by Mr. Fiennes, Mr. Logan, Gabrielle Tana, Julia Taylor-Stanley and Colin Vaines; released by the Weinstein Company (United States) and Lionsgate (Britain). Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Ralph Fiennes (Caius Martius Coriolanus), Gerard Butler (Tullus Aufidius), Brian Cox (Menenius), Vanessa Redgrave (Volumnia), Jessica Chastain (Virgilia), John Kani (General Cominius), James Nesbitt (Tribune Brutus), Paul Jesson (Tribune Sicinius), Lubna Azabal (Tamora) and Ashraf Barhom (Cassius).


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