Coriolanus begins with a close-up of a man sharpening a knife engraved with tribal runes, striking it across a stone. It's a primal, powerful image, captured in a dark, flickering light. But as the camera pulls back, the ancient weapon and the man wielding it emerge in a more contemporary context: The light is emanating from a television, with news reports of food riots, shots of police and protesters battling on city streets.
We're in the here and now.
Which is what Ralph Fiennes' adaptation of the late-career Shakespeare drama is all about: a tale of usurpation, of power and revenge, of class war and the egos of generals, set in what could be Greece of this week, or the Arab Spring upheavals of last year, or Bosnia in the 1990s.
The man with the blade, we soon discover, is Tullus Aufidius (a brooding, tattooed Gerard Butler), commander of the Volscians. He is a sworn enemy of Caius Martius Coriolanus (Fiennes), the Roman leader whose contempt for his citizens lies behind the conflagration being documented on TV.
Over the course of this visceral, vital interpretation of one of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays, the two men will battle, and then ally themselves, and then, well . . . no spoilers here, but, of course, this is tragedy. Suffice to say, the knife makes a return appearance.
Fiennes starred in a 2000 London stage production of Coriolanus, and he's clearly drawn to this cold, hard protagonist - a warrior whose courage and prowess made him a hero, but whose arrogance and indifference have found the people of Rome turned against him. He's a complicated dude, and Fiennes - making an extremely accomplished directorial debut - shows him as such.
And shows him, in several pivotal scenes, as a man who can be, and still very much is, manipulated by his mother, Volumnia. Vanessa Redgrave, at once imperious and soulful, brings her customary grace and gravitas to the role, urging her son to pursue the position of consul, urging him to be the aggressor, to rule ruthlessly.
With lots of nervous handheld photography (courtesy of The Hurt Locker's Barry Ackroyd) and gritty, violent street battles - machine guns, grenades, car bombs - Coriolanus has immediacy, and urgency. Shakespeare's iambs pulsate, too - somehow, the old Elizabethan rhythms and rhymes square perfectly with the modern dress, the cell phones, the cigarettes.
Brian Cox is especially good, and slippery, as Menenius, a Roman senator, and the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain (she made only about 300 movies last year!), is Virgilia, Coriolanus' spouse, projecting pridefulness and fidelity, and a wary melancholy, in her few short scenes.
There's a reason the Bard still speaks to us today, a reason so many great theater and screen adaptations of Shakespeare's work have draped his characters in contemporary clothes, or clothes of other centuries past: Even in what is viewed as a minor work, the inevitable currents of ambition and violence, cruelty and competition, rivalry and rage run strong and truthfully.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or email@example.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/onmovies.