Hundreds of films have been adapted from William Shakespeare’s works since the invention of the medium—there are more than 50 versions of Hamlet alone—but Coriolanus, despite being the tale of a ruthless warrior, has virtually never made the leap. Indeed, it’s known as one of the “problem plays”: a tragedy in which nothing precisely tragic happens, featuring a protagonist who’s never less than fascinating but borders on being inhuman. So it’s mightily impressive that Ralph Fiennes, who both directed this film and plays the tricky title role, has succeeded in fashioning a rousing, unusually stark spectacle, and doubly so that he’s shifted the setting to the present day in a way that never remotely seems cute or gimmicky.
Shot in Belgrade—the blasted ruins of which lend a despairing tone to scenes of brutal hand-to-hand combat—this skillfully stripped-down Coriolanus is light on iambic pentameter, but still tells Will’s tale of a Roman general (Fiennes) whose reluctant campaign for the Senate gets him banished from the city when he refuses to suck up to the populace, leading him to join forces with his greatest enemy (Gerard Butler) and lead a vengeful attack. As director, Fiennes opts for the basics, juxtaposing classical master shots with handheld urgency; as lead actor, he tears into Coriolanus’ seething, aggrieved misanthropy. Both get the job done, and Fiennes also gets a fine, fiery performance from Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’ manipulative mom. If you like the idea of Shakespeare but tend to be put off by the semi-archaic language, here’s a rare case in which poetry is perhaps the least of the movie’s virtues.