The script keeps in place the bones of the play, about the ever controversial Roman general Caius Martius Coriolanus (Fiennes), who is greatly admired for his bravery in battle but detested for his belittlement of ordinary Roman citizens. It updates the story from ancient Rome to the techno-challenging world of the 21st century, which is certainly not a scenario Shakespeare had in mind.
But the tale works effectively in being so character driven that the gradual downfall of the man is completely believable, even in the ever-changing world in which we now live. In his dealings with his domineering mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), who tries to will in him the ambition to use his wartime victory to seek a powerful office, and then in his alignment with his sworn enemy, the Volscian guerrilla leader Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), we watch a man implode because of the shortcomings and rage-aholic tendencies that surface after his political defeat.
This version of "Coriolanus" gets its real mojo in the superb cast Fiennes has assembled, starting with himself. Most actors turning to the directing chair for the first time might not want to burden themselves with such a heavily demanding role, but Fiennes brilliantly pulls off the multitasking with aplomb and directs himself into one of his most memorable and riveting turns as an actor. His downward spiral is beautifully captured by both star and director. Where he really shines, though, is in his casting and the ability to attract high-caliber actors and then let them do their thing.
Impressive again in what seems like her eighth film this year, Jessica Chastain excellently underplays the role of his anxious but fragile wife. Brian Cox is perfection as a sympathetic, grizzled political veteran and senator who advises him in his political run. There is also a nice change-of-pace role for Butler as Aufidius, the main nemesis of Coriolanus, who must make a stunning life-or-death choice regarding the man in a finale that is edge-of-your-seat stuff of the highest order. But Redgrave is given the most exciting role as a military woman, born and bred, who molds her son in her own image. She has one monologue that is astonishing, the single best-acted moment in any 2011 film.
The style and approach of "Coriolanus" may take some adjustment, but the cinematic rewards are many in this impressive effort from Fiennes.
Written by John Logan
Directed by Ralph Fiennes
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, James Nesbitt, Jessica Chastain