Coriolanus Films Ltd/Magnolia Mae Films/Berlin International Film Festival

First-time director Ralph Fiennes makes Shakespeare modern and bloody brilliant.

At a time when revolution is again in the air around the world, Ralph Fiennes delivers a ferocious reminder of the perils of a military leader becoming head of state. He directs and stars in William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, converting the Roman history play into a full-on action picture, complete with tanks, rockets and automatic weapons.

Set in current times, it looks and sounds like a war picture with lots of men in uniform, often covered in blood. But screenwriter John Logan, an Oscar nominee for his work on The Aviator, has employed the original writing skillfully; the film illuminates the Bard’s gift for timeless insight into what moves the human spirit and motivates ambition.

Coriolanus should not put off those who find Shakespeare daunting. His language is there, but it’s delivered in fully natural cadences. It’s a tough, violent and moving tragedy with splendid performances by Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave as his mother, Volumnia, Brian Cox as his friend Menenius and Gerard Butler as his enemy Aufidius.

Because there are more battles in Coriolanus than in any other Shakespeare play, Fiennes’ deployment of modern weaponry doesn’t seem gratuitous. The film could pass as a true actioner, carrying itself beyond the scholarly to a mainstream audience.

The first half sees Caius Martius (Fiennes) lead his men through bombed-out city streets and buildings in search of the enemy. Handheld camera work mixes with well-staged action, flying limbs and dead bodies. Still, Fiennes gives pride of place in the end to the cold steel of knives, which reflects the play’s original weapons of mass destruction. Filmed in Belgrade, Serbia, the setting is “a place calling itself Rome,” but it could be any site of urban conflict. Martius returns to his city-state bloodied but victorious after his recent battles and is acclaimed as a peerless warrior. His mother exudes unquenchable pride in her son even as she observes, “Before him he carries noise, and behind him he leaves tears.”

He has defeated Aufidius, leader of the rebel Volsces, and won the city of Corioles, so he is dubbed Coriolanus. Urged on by his mentor Menenius and his ambitious mother, Martius seeks the highest rank in the Senate, despite opposition from Tribunes Brutus (Paul Jesson) and Sicinius (James Nesbitt). Before he can claim the position, he must gain the people’s support. And there’s the rub: He has led brutal reprisals against social protestors and has no taste for the posturing required to appease crowds. Martius is banished and seeks out Aufidius so they can assault Rome together.

Fiennes and Butler have the martial swagger to match their incisive vocal delivery. Their  mutual suspicion and the possibility that Martius has become psychotic as well as merciless create a good deal of suspense toward the film’s climax. Cox and Redgrave render emotional lines with grace and delicacy. Redgrave changes temper and spits out vituperation to match the agile Fiennes. They make a vitriolic pair — heavyweight screen acting at its best.

With help from a fine cast, production designer Ricky Eyres and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, Fiennes produces a piece of Shakespeare with a cutting edge as sharp as it is bloody.

Berlin Film Festival | Out of Competition
Production Artemis Films, Hermetof Pictures, BBC Films
Director Ralph Fiennes
Screenwriter John Logan
Cast Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave
No rating, 122 minutes