Updating Shakespeare seems doubly condescending, the implication being that we need help to relate to the text, and that the text needs to be made relevant. In the case of Ralph Fiennes' adaptation of Coriolanus—a knotty tragedy about a warrior who refuses to kowtow to the perceived inferiors who control his fate—the transposition to the present day is confusing and counterproductive, dulling the impact of an otherwise fierce, often unbearably immediate production. (However remote Rome in the 5th century B.C. might be, it can't be as disorienting as a modern urban sniper fight that culminates in a mano-a-mano, "Beat It"-style blade tussle.) What saves the film is actor Fiennes' steadfastness to the character of Caius Martius Coriolanus, an irreducible antihero balancing a defiant integrity with damning pride. Fiennes doesn't understate the general's monstrosity—he sports frightful facial scars and barks at commoners through exaggeratedly pursed lips—but his physicality complements rather than obscures the Bard's blunt dialogue. ("Make you a sword of me." "Anger's my meat.") As blood rival Tullus Aufidius, Gerard Butler's all surface, a beard with a Scottish brogue, leaving Brian Cox and Vanessa Redgrave to remind us how it's done. They make every line seem personally conceived, surprising yet inevitable, and in the process reaffirm that exquisitely articulated words are where the drama is.
Fiennes (at center) adds bullets to the Bard.
Opens Fri., Feb. 3 at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown. Rated R. 122 minutes.