"Coriolanus," one of Shakespeare's least-known major plays, is also perhaps the one most "relevant" to today's headlines. Maybe this is why Ralph Fiennes, who directed John Logan's adaptation and stars as the Roman military hero, decided to modernize it so that it summons up Iraq and Afghanistan and other hot spots.
First the good news: Fiennes leads a cast that, at least in the major roles, is uniformly powerful. It's wonderful to hear actors like Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave, and Jessica Chastain (yes, she's in this, too), speak these great incendiary lines.
Fiennes's Caius Martius, later known as Coriolanus, is contemptuous of the clamoring Roman citizenry he defends and idolatrous of his enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). His downfall lies in these divisions. His fall from power, once set in motion, is horrifyingly swift. Fiennes played Martius at least once before, 10 years ago, on the London stage and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and it's a role that clearly galvanizes him. If you want to see what Voldemort is really capable of, see Fiennes here.
The greatest performance, though, is Vanessa Redgrave's as Martius's blood-lusting mother, Volumnia. It's an extraordinarily powerful piece of acting, all controlled rage. When, in the end, that rage erupts, her vehemence splits the screen.
The bad news is that this production is yet another attempt to update Shakespeare. The play is brought into a world where not only the dress is modern but so is the technology. TV news bulletins punctuate the (not particularly well-staged) warfaring action.
I admit to being old-school when it comes to Shakespeare. I think the great plays do very well by themselves – and speak to our age more clearly – without all this hyped-up hoopla. But be thankful for small favors: "Coriolanus" is a lot better than Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet." Grade: B- (Rated R for some bloody violence.)