With its warring factions, citizen uprisings, guerrilla insurgencies, political intrigue, bloody warfare, family tensions, and homoerotic subtext, Coriolanus is one of the year’s best political thrillers. It’s also nearly 500 years old. The Shakespearean tragedy from which the movie draws its textual heft, though, has received an utterly arresting, creative modern-day adaptation. The title refers to the name of honor bestowed on the Roman general Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes), a fearless, hard-boiled military man rewarded for his service with political office for which he’s thoroughly unsuited. Ousted by the very populace he despises, he takes revenge by allying himself against his own city with the guerrilla leader Tullus Aufidius (a really good Gerard Butler, in a meaty role), the sworn enemy he loves as much as he hates. It gets worse from there: Caius’ lioness of a mother (Vanessa Redgrave) is angry with him too. Redgrave gives a towering performance, and it’s a measure of the production’s success (and the astute screenplay by Rango’s John Logan) that she is met at every scene by worthy costars, including 2011’s ubiquitous Jessica Chastain as Caius’ wife.
With his shaved head and burning eyes ringed with streaks of blood, Fiennes not only makes a brilliant, fearsome Coriolanus — he also displays an exciting talent for filmmaking, based on this, his feature directorial debut. He smartly chose The Hurt Locker cinematographer Barry Ackroyd to give Coriolanus — shot, aptly, in Serbia — its restless, naturalistic, ripped-from-the-headlines look. The result is Shakespeare on a trip wire. A-