Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes, 123 mins (15) J Edgar, Clint Eastwood, 137 mins (15)

Can you all please stop going back to the future?

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The Independent Culture

Audiences didn't seem to mind that Gladiator and Braveheart were set in ye olden days, so why should a Shakespearean tragedy about the Roman Republic be plonked in the 21st century? Ralph Fiennes has set his earnest film of Coriolanus in "a place calling itself Rome", which is sort-of contemporary Britain and sort-of the Balkans – and he won't let us forget how achingly relevant it is. Demonstrators clash with lines of riot police; a public debate is conducted in the studio of a TV chat show. It's like a piece of 1980s political theatre aimed at classes of bored schoolchildren.

Fortunately, Coriolanus gets much better when it stops trying to impress us with its up-to-dateness, and lets us get on with watching Shakespeare. Vanessa Redgrave is at her best as the hero's steely mother, who relishes war even more than her warrior son, while Brian Cox is wonderfully natural as his wise and world-weary ally. But Fiennes himself is more problematic as Caius Martius, a general who's feted by the populace as long as he's winning battles, but falls out of favour in peace time because he refuses to suck up to the rabble. Coriolanus may be a comment on the importance of good PR (ah, how relevant), but Fiennes plays Caius as a ranting psycho who sprays spit like a lawn-sprinkler whenever he speaks. If the Romans aren't keen on a man who makes Voldemort seem like a lovable softy, who can blame them?

One grating aspect of modern-dress Shakespeare is its implication that we can't relate to the past without some help from characters who look a bit like we do. There's a similar patronising undercurrent to those historical biopics which keep jumping forward to sequences set several decades later, a device which seems to be getting out of hand. Think of The Iron Lady. It devotes so much time to Mrs T as a doddery old woman that the rest of her life hardly gets a mention, and there are two other biopics out this week with the same problem.

The better of the two is J Edgar, which is directed by Clint Eastwood and scripted by Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter of Milk. It shows how the young J Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) set up the FBI in the 1920s, keeping secret files on anyone and everyone, and dismissing any agents who drank, smoked or grew moustaches. Eastwood and Black deal quickly and shrewdly with a wealth of extraordinary material, from the Lindbergh kidnapping to Hoover's intense – though seemingly chaste – love affair with his right-hand man (Armie Hammer).

However, much like The Iron Lady, J Edgar keeps cutting back to Hoover in his dotage, with a fat-suited DiCaprio dictating his memoirs under an inch of prosthetic make-up. The flashback-and-forth structure is quite an elegant one, but it eventually results in a film that's fragmentary, overlong and tricky to follow.

A much worse example of the same tendency is W.E., which dramatises the romance between Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII – or so you might assume from the poster. In fact, the majority of Madonna's disastrous folly is set in 1990s New York, and stars Abbie Cornish as the painfully named Wally Winthrop, a frustrated Manhattanite trophy wife who keeps wafting around an auction house, mooning over displays of Simpson's jewellery.

These repetitive, risibly unconvincing scenes are almost hypnotic in their tedium, whereas the flashbacks to Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) and Edward (James D'Arcy) aren't half bad, relatively speaking. How perverse, then, that the Windsors' story is consigned to brief montages which tell us almost nothing about their contentious relationship. Here and there we get glimpses of a better film – and then it's back to Wally Winthrop's wistful wafting.


Next Week

Nicholas Barber goes crazy for Like Crazy, an improvised romantic drama.

Also Showing: 22/01/2012

Haywire (93 mins, 15)

Steven Soderbergh's new film stars Gina Carano, a Mixed Martial Arts champion who he happened to spot on TV. She had never done any acting before, but Soderbergh reasoned that she'd make a more believable action heroine than Angelina Jolie, so he decided to build a film around her – one of those many post-Bourne spy movies which have a secret agent being chased by the very organisation they work for (see also Salt, Knight and Day, and The Quantum of Solace).

It was an astute idea, in that Carano looks as if she knows what she's doing in the fight scenes. So, why didn't Soderbergh put in more of those fight scenes for her? Considering the limitations of Carano's acting, why did he stick her in such a drawn-out, meandering film? She's destined for direct-to-video potboilers in the near future. The sad thing is that, despite its stellar supporting cast (Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, et al), Haywire feels like a direct-to-video cheapie itself.

The Sitter (78 mins, 15)

Jonah Hill's slobbish drop-out is left in charge of three children, only to drive them into New York so he can pick up some cocaine from a dealer. This derivative comedy isn't a career high for Hill, but he's watchable enough to help it meet its low aspirations.

X: Night of Vengeance (90 mins, 18)

Lurid yet utterly boring Oz-sploitation thriller about two Sydney prostitutes on the run. Even worse than its title might suggest.