With great power comes great responsibility, but powerful men often make for lousy, irresponsible politicians. (Insert personal observations on certain presidential candidates here.) With "Coriolanus,"one of William Shakespeare's toughest, most provocative studies in statesmanship, the dramatist created a tragedy (premiering in 1608) built upon the life of a fifth century B.C. warrior who, whether by excess of pride or by stubborn humility or an all-too-human mixture of both, had an infernal time adjusting to life off the battlefield.
Now Ralph Fiennes has conjured a very fine film of "Coriolanus," in which the actor makes his feature directorial debut and captures a performance Fiennes debuted on the London stage a decade ago. It's worth seeing simply for Vanessa Redgrave's Volumnia, the Roman soldier's fearsome mother. But screenwriter John Logan's astute, compact adaptation of the play shapes the material to work as a movie, not just a performance vehicle.
Shakespeare's play doesn't make the rounds all that often on American stages; it's a forbidding prospect for audiences and nonprofit companies nervous about spending time with a ruler of shadowy, complex motives and minimal rooting interest. The action of "Coriolanus" takes place in and outside of Rome, as Shakespeare wrote it; Logan and Fiennes locate their Rome in what appears to be a modern-day Balkan nation, where news of the war is glimpsed and heard on CNN-like cable stations, and incidents of all sorts are captured on cellphone cameras. The mob is starving; Fiennes' imperious statesman hates playing politics with the rabble and disdainfully refers to the worthless practice of "mingling them with us." Yet he's no hypocrite.
Gerard Butler plays his sworn enemy, Aufidius, leader of the Volscian attack on Rome, and though Butler doesn't bring much more variety of attack or nuance to this role than he does, say, to "The Bounty Hunter,"he's a reasonably effective foil. Brian Cox is superb as Menenius, a career politico to the bone. Though "Coriolanus" has very little room for women -- it's about a man who shuns his domestic and civilian life for a return to war -- Jessica Chastain acquits herself well in the supporting role of Virgilia, the title character's wife. Redgrave is positively smashing throughout, her eyes blazing with indignation and purpose.
Fiennes shot his film in Belgrade, Serbia. He keeps his setups simple, and has only begun to learn how to move a camera. Yet he and Logan can be proud of this modern-dress Shakespeare -- and difficult Shakespeare at that. You buy the concept, from start to finish, because it feels strong and purposeful and in sync with Shakespeare's own vision of a malleable, fickle populace and a leader raised by the ultimate stage mother.