This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 27th May 2012
It’s not surprising that this is the first ever movie adaptation of Shakespeare’s great play. Ralph Fiennes makes his directorial debut and takes the starring role, which shows a degree of narcissism as well as considerable talent: his performance is a stand-out (and quite how one is supposed to watch the rushes then give oneself advice on how to “tone it down” is anyone’s guess. He clearly dispensed with such advice). But the outcome is heavy-going.
Fiennes plays the eponymous leader, a returned soldier and hero with angry, misanthropic views. His inflammatory political stance ignites insurgence and bloodshed, which leads to his exile. Hell hath no fury like a hero scorned, and his relationship with enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler, initially two-dimensional but more powerful in later scenes) takes an unexpected turn.
Retaining the original dialogue, Fiennes and his excellent foreign cast (among them, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox and up-and-comer Jessica Chastain) handle their lines as naturally as possible, removing the potential jarring of listening to bygone speech while looking at a modern picture. This tack shows how it can be done without reverting to 21st century paraphrasing a la Ten Things I Hate About You or Baz Luhrmann’s (albeit exciting) retelling of the star-crossed lovers with pop music.
What makes this version most interesting, however, is its contemporary updating to a war-torn Bosnia-like Rome, with opening combat scenes shown via newsreel and gritty, handheld photography. Helpfully (particularly for those not familiar with the play), the clever use of TV footage and live news stories conveys the history and context within which the drama commences. Fiennes nearly bursts a blood vessel in his passion, but brings an energy to the telling which makes it an enthralling, and tiring, watch.