OF ALL Shakespeare's tragic heroes, Coriolanus has been described as the hardest to warm up to.
Not a charmer, that Coriolanus. Didn't have a nice word to say about anyone, except somebody he was determined to kill in battle.
The Roman general was remarkably brave in battles fought to preserve the safety of his country's citizens, remarkably full of contempt for those same folks.
Shakespeare was fascinated by this contradiction, and wrote some of his best stuff for this character, making Coriolanus the blunt-speaking counterpoint to the silver-tongued Henry V.
When Coriolanus (played in this adaptation set in contemporary Eastern Europe by Ralph Fiennes) sets out to crush a valiant rebel leader (Gerard Butler), he describes him as "a lion I would be proud to hunt."
When his outnumbered men balk at attacking the rebels, Coriolanus walks forward alone, exhorting his fearful men to "make me your sword."
Victories won by such ferocious courage make him a natural for political office, yet he doesn't seek or enjoy the limelight. When politicians read his achievements aloud in the senate, Coriolanus leaves the room.
His civilian's suit itches him, and he simply cannot bring himself to say the pandering things his political adviser (Brian Cox) writes for him.
The public senses this, as do political rivals, and they test his short temper until he loses it. A good thing, too, because it yields one of Shakespeare's best speeches. One that boils down to this: I would gladly sacrifice my life for my country, but when I look at the people who live in my country, I generally do not find them worthy of that sacrifice. (You listen to it, and you realize that Aaron Sorkin almost certainly used it as a model for the Jack Nicholson speech in "A Few Good Men.")
Fiennes is also the director of "Coriolanus," a play he updates by placing it in contemporary Eastern Europe - the play "opens up" nicely, with battle scenes that resonate with audiences who've grown up with "Black Hawk Down."
He and writer John Logan have ruthlessly stripped it down to its essence (it clocks in at two hours), and given it punchy rhythm - Fiennes cleverly uses models of talking-head political TV shows to handle exposition.
Fiennes heads a great cast. Crew cut and scarred, his Coriolanus blends patrician arrogance with the bloodthirsty intensity of the thug he played in "In Bruges."
Butler brings his "300" brio to an action role, Vanessa Redgrave her genius to the crucial role of Coriolanus' manipulative, tough-love mother, who gloats over her son's wounds, knowing they will add to his political capital.
She pushes Coriolanus toward a career that does not suit him. You might say she dooms him, but the warrior pride that defines and drives the general also proves his undoing.
Still, is he really so hard to like?
Not during this election season. When you stack Coriolanus next to modern candidates who can't take a dump without taking a poll, he looks pretty good. Coriolanus would kill the guy who brought him data from a focus group. He might even kill the focus group.