When most of us think of Shakespeare, we think of Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Romeo & Juliet or about a dozen other of the Bard's well-preserved dramas; we don't think of Coriolanus. That is, unless we have a Ph.D. in literature or are T. S. Eliot (who considered Coriolanus "Shakespeare's most assured artistic success"). But the relative obscurity of this late-career Shakespearian tragedy is no hindrance—indeed, it's likely an asset—for actor-turned-director Ralph Fiennes, whose cinematic version of the play is so masterfully executed and attuned to contemporary sensibilities that it's likely to elevate the play to a more prominent place in the Shakespeare canon.
With the help of screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator), Fiennes faithfully situates the Elizabethan iambic pentameter in a contemporary context (complete with cell phone cameras and 24-hour cable news), a risky and sometimes gimmicky anachronism that manages to work well here. Though to modern ears the language may sound confusing and silly (why say "Methinks I hear hither" when you could just say "I think I hear"?), connoisseurs of Shakespeare will be delighted by the eloquence of the words as spoken by a coterie of British thespians fluent in the rhythms and diction of the Bard.
In addition to directing, Fiennes (following up his superbly malevolent tenure as Voldemort in the Harry Potter franchise) stars as the title character. A military hero of aristocratic stock, Caius Martius Coriolanus is a prideful, stubborn man at home in battle and uneasy in the halls of politics, where he is unwittingly thrust by his domineering mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) and opportunistic political advisor Menenius (Brian Cox). Alternately loved and loathed by his constituents, Martius has no patience for the fickle masses and makes no attempt to hide his disdain for the Joe Plumbers of the world. He hates political rhetoric and instead of giving speeches would much prefer a good knife-fight with his sworn enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), head of the Voluscian rebel army. Like Tullus, Martius is a macho warrior at heart, not a slick, baby-kissing politician. And this means his political rise turns into an explosive downfall about as fast as you can say "Herman Cain."
Set in "a place calling itself Rome," with the look of war torn Serbia, Coriolanus reflects Shakespearian themes of power, pride, ambition and downfall; but it also speaks quite sagely into the issues of our world today. Scenes of an angry mob of "plebeians" organizing, rioting, and using the media to spread their grievances against the aristocratic "1 percent" has obvious parallels to Occupy Wall Street and today's global economic discontent. Other scenes of urban warfare—bodies in the street and bombed-out cars—evoke contemporary warzones like Iraq. But there are also timely commentaries on the role of personality in politics, the way that handlers can manipulate a politician's image, and the speed with which public opinion can turn on a candidate when the slightest gaffe is recorded and virally spread throughout the populace.