Until Fiennes chose it for his directorial debut, this blunt and blood-soaked Shakespearean tragedy had never had a big-screen treatment.

I'm not sure that this version will do much to rescue from the margins a play that delivers much more by way of action-packed entertainment than it offers as a profound analysis of the human condition. Fiennes has said that the newspapers are "full of events that happen in the story that felt like they came from our film", but that stretches a point, really. He employs some bold - though scarcely new - directorial touches such as having messenger's speeches or expository dialogue transformed into scripts for CNN newsreaders, but you will look in vain here for a deeper understanding of how Milosevic or Saddam Hussein ticked.

That said, it's a belter of a war story. When we meet the title character, played by Fiennes himself, he is Caius Martius - Coriolanus is a name bestowed later in recognition of a military triumph - whose mythic stature as military hero cuts no ice with a crowd rioting for food.

Not that it bothers him. "What's the matter, you dissentious rogues, That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, Make yourselves scabs?" he sneers, establishing early on his contempt for anyone other than his equal in battle.


In essence, then, it's the story of the fall from grace of a nasty thug. Martius, who leads an attack on Rome's southern enemies, the Volscians, is groomed for political office, but his aspirations are undermined by two tribunes (Nesbitt and Jesson) who whip the crowd up into a fury of opposition. An outraged Coriolanus exiles himself and teams up with the Volscian general Aufidius (Butler) to mount an attack on Rome. In Shakespeare, acts of treachery never had a happy ending.

Fiennes sets events in a featureless country reminiscent of the former Yugoslavia - although the soldiers' weaponry and kit suggest the Iraqi conflict -and the action sequences are visceral and thrilling. Likewise it's a treat to hear him utter the poetry, which has a muscular, barely suppressed violence. The text has been heavily edited and reshuffled so that the action bowls along between grand and dramatic set pieces and the focus is all on Fiennes as a result; only the marvellous Redgrave, as a spookily loving mother, is his equal.

Stars: 4/5
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain, John Kani, James Nesbitt, Paul Jesson
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Running time: 122 mins
Rating: M (violence and offensive language)
Verdict: War and gore Shakespeare is thrilling

Coriolanus is now showing in Hamilton and opens in Auckland on May 24.