Ralph Fiennes (the esteemed actor now best known for embodying Voldemort in the Harry Potter films) gave himself no small challenge for his first directorial effort. Coriolanus is a dense, political Shakespeare play, modernized by Fiennes and writer John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo) into a raw, bloody war movie. The film maintains the play's original text, a theatrical speech that manages to both heighten and impede the drama in certain instances. But Fiennes injects the material with unfiltered energy, and even when the story is lost in its own intricacies, it's visceral and commanding.
Presented against the nightmarish backdrop of ''Rome,'' a Children of Men-esque land devastated by raging battles, Coriolanus follows the troubled political career of Caius Martius Coriolanus (Fiennes), a general who fights resistance movements, butts heads with local protestors and evades attack from influential statesmen. Martius is driven by one goal: to defeat his former friend and long-time nemesis Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), leader of the opposing, Volscian army. Rather than attend to the city's rioting population, the general joins his military squad to breach the Volscian's walls, in hopes of going mano a mano with Aufidius. Martius achieves victory after victory (without putting an end to his Aufidius troubles), becoming a hero to his government. Eventually, through his overbearing mother's persuasion, Martius is convinced to put down his semi-automatic and begin an ascent to political greatness. It doesn't go so well.
Even if the abridged version of Coriolanus presented in the adaptation was a slow-paced, talky drama, every detail of Shakespeare's complicated narrative may still be difficult to parse, but Fiennes isn't looking to hold any hands. He shoots his movie with the kineticism of a Bourne movie, or the recent Hurt Locker, full of shaky cam movement and too-close-for-comfort close-ups. He uses the extreme presentation of 24 news networks to replicate in Shakespeare's expository asides while bombarding our senses. He has a cast who can deliver The Bard's poetic dialogue with a cadence that fits realistic setting. The sound and feel of the language is as important as the meaning.
Fiennes isn't as concerned with audiences registering every last minutiae of Coriolanus and he takes every opportunity he can to let his cast off their leash to dig into the drama's inherent intensity. The director/actor plays Caius Martius Coriolanus like a rabid dogcrazed behind the eyes and ready to unleash a barrage of hellfire and spit. Butler's Tullus Aufidius is a low-key foil, but when the two finally butt heads, neither gentleman holds back. The real stand out is Vanessa Redgrave as Martius' mother Volumnia, whose hushed manipulation is even more terrifying than Martius' over aggression.
Coherence isn't the priority in Coriolanus and attempts to connect with the characters becomes a chore, but Fiennes's first foray into directing is enjoyable in the exhilaration it delivers to a time-honored text. Forget your memories of 11th grade Englishthis is unique, adrenaline-infused Shakespeare.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 1/2 stars.