Coriolanus - Ralph Fiennes and Gerard Butler
Coriolanus - Roman General Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes) and enemy leader Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) become unlikely allies in this brutal Shakespeare update © 2011 The Weinstein Company

Director/star Ralph Fiennes is ferociously brilliant in this time-transplanted Shakespeare tragedy about a Roman general who seeks vengeance on his own people after a backroom betrayal by his political enemies. Although the bard’s dialog remains largely intact, this is a Rome in which news is delivered by the Fidelis TV channel, automatic rifles have replaced swords and banishment means hitching a ride on a truck headed out of town.

Purists may disagree about whether shifting the story to a stylized version of the present is a clever way to make the play accessible to modern audiences or a disrespectful stunt that draws too much attention to itself. Anyone worried about the latter possibility may be comforted to hear that the movie doesn’t go as wildly overboard as director Julie Taymor’s hallucinogenically anachronistic Titus, in which the re-imagined Rome of Titus Andronicus became a mishmash of elements from multiple eras. Even those who enjoyed Taymor’s take can understand why some audiences thought it was too overwhelmingly bizarre.

Although the language of Coriolanus remains theatrically Shakespearean here, the sets, locations, costumes, weapons and technology are uniformly contemporary. That at least grounds the piece within a cohesive framework that asks audiences to believe only one impossible thing: that characters with cell phones still speak as if it’s the turn of the 17th century.

General Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes) listens to an appeal from his desperate wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) © 2011 The Weinstein Company

Fiennes is brutally believable as General Caius Martius, who is given the honorary name Coriolanus after a successful campaign against rebels in neighboring Corioles. The relentless warrior is as viciously willing to fight unarmed as with weapons, and battlefield honor means more to him than awards or titles.

That doesn’t stop his amibitious military-obsessed mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) or family friend Senator Menenius (Brian Cox) from encouraging him to assume the leadership of Rome that they believe is his rightful due. Unfortunately for his political future, the more savage than savvy Coriolanus has trouble hiding his contempt for the citizenry.

In a reversal that infuriates Coriolanus, he is unjustly branded a traitor and exiled. Determined to get payback, he shocks his former greatest enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) by offering to help him conquer Rome.

The movie’s battle scenes are immersively run-and-gun realistic, and Fiennes is completely credible as a bloodied, scarred and unstoppable force of nature. Butler’s man-of-the-people character is a different kind of general, although one perfectly willing to shoot a captured prisoner in the head to make a point. Redgrave is rigidly regal as Coriolanus’ domineering mother, and Jessica Chastain is quietly resolute as his wife and the mother of his young son.

Screenwriter John Logan, who has scripted movies as diverse as Hugo, Rango, The Aviator and Gladiator, succeeds in making this updated adaptation intriguingly stylized and fascinatingly relevant to rapidly changing alliances in today’s world. The house-to-house and hand-to-hand action-movie violence sometimes plays like Shakespeare on steroids, but the muscles underneath are powerfully real.

[Rating: 4 stars]

Coriolanus opens in theaters on Friday December 2, 2011

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer. More by James Dawson