Just as Kenneth Branagh did Henry V as a play before he directed it on film, so Ralph Fiennes tried out Shakespeare's less well-known Coriolanus on stage 10 years before he put it in front of the camera. That preparation tells in the performance: Fiennes lives and breathes the part of the flawed Roman general Caius Martius, his aloof and implacable nature a good fit for this cold-eyed, cerebral actor. Whether he can also cut it as a director seemed initially uncertain. Set in "a place calling itself Rome" but filmed in Belgrade, it echoes the savage factionalism of the Balkans both in its war scenes (house-to-house firefights, cities in rubble) and its heated political disputation. The CNN-style newsflashes and other media paraphernalia are hugely distracting, while Jon Snow spouting iambic pentameters on the telly is mere gimmickry.
Yet once the general returns victorious to "Rome", the play begins to grip, and we see that Caius – now renamed Coriolanus and encouraged to run for consul – is quite ill-suited to politics, with its appeasements and compromises. He's a warrior, not a statesman, too proud to court the favour of the mob he despises. "You are too absolute," his mother says, understanding him better than he does himself. The machinations of two tribunes contrive in his eventual banishment, from which point he plots his fateful revenge.
Fiennes amps up the power of the verse with some shrewd casting: Brian Cox is superb as backroom operator Menenius, frazzled by diplomacy, and Gerard Butler, whose name usually makes the heart sink, gives a fine, sinewy account of rebel leader Aufidius, the sworn enemy whom Coriolanus joins in an alliance against Rome. Best of all is Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia, the hero's ambitious mother, assured in the verse-speaking and passionate in two major confrontations with her son, first when she counsels tact, then later when she makes a forlorn appeal for mercy. Fiennes was also smart to hire Barry Ackroyd, the ace cinematographer (they worked together on The Hurt Locker) whose lighting lends just the right degree of menace. The screenwriter, John Logan, makes judicious cuts to the original while keeping much of the magnificent language intact ("His eye red, as it would burn Rome"). After a shaky start, the debutant director finds his feet, and turns this 400-year-old play into something vivid and compelling.