Maybe the best idea in Baz Luhrmann's hyperactive, modern-day take on Romeo and Juliet was to put Shakespeare's prologue in the mouth of a contemporary newsreader. Ralph Fiennes takes the concept and runs with it in his thrilling adaptation of Coriolanus, which reconceives the tragedy of a Roman general for the era of the 24-hour news cycle.
In the stage play, a restless mob on the streets of Rome marks the entrance of an avuncular politician: "Soft! Who comes here?" "Worthy Menenius Agrippa, one that hath always loved the people." On film, characters make these remarks when they see Menenius (Brian Cox) addressing an interviewer about the city-state's turbulent politics. In a fleet bit of editing, screenwriter John Logan (an Oscar nominee for Hugo) uses TV journalism to provide lightning-fast exposition and realistically connect characters in different locales and social strata.
Fiennes' Coriolanus provides plenty of action and powerhouse performances for Shakespeare newcomers, while viewers who better know the Bard can enjoy the novelty of a lesser-known play living up to an innovative cinematic treatment.
Both director and leading man, Fiennes shot the film in Belgrade and evokes Serbia's urban battle zones as Coriolanus defends Rome against the marauding Volscians (led by Gerard Butler). In the aftermath of his victory, Coriolanus hopes to claim the leadership of Rome, but his ruthlessness and fury as a warrior turn out to be political liabilities. Between the outspoken suspicions of Occupy-style demonstrators and the schemes of crafty power brokers, Coriolanus turns against the very city-state he swore to protect.
Coriolanus weds Fiennes' fluency with Shakespearean invective with his nearly terrifying ability to channel the rage of his volcanic roles. He makes Coriolanus a cautionary tale of the dangers of unchecked impulses, while the film's contemporary details resonate with today's politics without hitting any parallels too hard. Fiennes surrounds himself with excellent sparring partners, particularly Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus' mother, a patriot and unwavering fan of the military that raised her son to be a warrior first and a human being second.