Ralph Fiennes directing "Coriolanus" - a second-tier work by Shakespeare that's been retooled for modern times - sounds like a recipe for an exhausting vanity project by a talented but bored man. But, lo! It turns out that Fiennes' take on the Bard's play is a lean and ferocious tale of betrayal and revenge, with the famed actor to great work on both sides of the camera.
Coriolanus (Fiennes) is a war hero turned scape goat who is banished from the nation he helped save from invaders, and during his time away forges an alliance with a former enemy to exact revenge on his former homeland. Fiennes and screenwriter John Logan ("Hugo," "Rango") have moved the action to the 21st century, and tightened up the story's arch, but left the dialogue largely untouched, because, really, only a fool rewrites Shakespeare.
Fiennes works wonders on a shoestring budget, with the wreckage of Serbia stands in for a bombed-out Rome. There are moments that definitely look sparse, but it never looks cheap as Fiennes carefully builds set pieces and moments of war that hum with immediacy. But as is usually the case with the Bard, the real battles, the ones that matter, are fought with words.
Fiennes possesses a fantastic command of the language, as do his two most crucial supporting players, Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus' mother, Volumnia and Brian Cox as Menenius, a politician who tries to keep Coriolanus' arrogance in check. If you're looking for an early inspiration for Angela Lansbury's evil mother in "The Manchurian Candidate," you could do a lot worse that Volumnia, who is constantly stroking her son's ego and pushing him to seize power.
"Coriolanus" is a tragic examination of the male ego, the push-pull of democracy and patriotism and security, as well as the power - good and bad - of family, packed with a relevance that's endured for more than 400 years.
"Coriolanus" opens in limited release January 20th