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Originally published Thursday, February 2, 2012 at 3:00 PM

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Movie review

'Coriolanus': Brutal, modern take on Shakespeare's war drama

A movie review of "Coriolanus," directed by Ralph Fiennes and starring Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain and Vanessa Redgrave. The war drama is a brutal, streamlined, modern-dress adaptation of one of Shakespeare's longest plays.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

'Coriolanus,' with Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, Vanessa Redgrave. Directed by Fiennes, from a screenplay by John Logan, based on Shakespeare's play. 122 minutes. Rated R for some bloody violence. SIFF Cinema at the Uptown.

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One of Shakespeare's longest plays, "Coriolanus" has now been turned into a streamlined, modern-dress two-hour Roman epic. It was directed by and stars the Oscar-nominated British actor Ralph Fiennes, who makes an assured film-directing debut.

The movie's opening close-ups, of knives being sharpened with gusto, establish a brutal, militant tone that is maintained via a series of confrontations in which soldiers, politicians and rebels vie for control of the empire.

The visuals, including handheld camerawork and semi-hysterical subtitles that tell us who's winning, are straight out of cable news. They lend an immediacy to the picture that makes up for its general lack of humor and keeps it from becoming a one-note drama.

Fiennes has cast himself as Caius Martius Coriolanus and Gerard Butler as the general's mortal enemy, Tullus Audifius; they redefine the idea that politics makes strange bed-

fellows. Indeed, their love-hate relationship verges on the homoerotic.

While Fiennes' acting skills are abundantly on display (he draws on the fierce coldbloodedness that made his Nazi villain so horribly focused in "Schindler's List"), and Butler makes a charismatic opponent, it's the supporting cast that provides most of the knockout moments.

The script by John Logan ("Gladiator") doesn't give Jessica Chastain a lot of screen time, but as Coriolanus' wife, Virginia, she makes a virtue even of her silences. Vanessa Redgrave is shockingly aggressive as his ambitious mother, Volumnia.

Brian Cox is just as sharp as Coriolanus' friend, Menenius, a veteran politician who might have stepped out of George Clooney's "The Ides of March." The filmmakers didn't need to modernize the text by adding television sets and tanks; the universal, timeless nature of the conflict is clear.

The other actors do their best to help Fiennes define this curious anti-hero. Incapable of playing the role of peacetime compromiser, his Coriolanus comes across as a warrior who simply can't function without a war.

John Hartl:

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