David Edelstein: A modern Bard on screen

Before I talk about Ralph Fiennes' contemporary "Coriolanus," I want to be clear: I think updating Shakespeare's plays onscreen - doing them in modern dress or some wacky modern setting in which no one would talk so funny - is a terrible idea.

Except when it works. I love it when I'm proved wrong.

I was skeptical when my old college friend Michael Almereyda said he was shooting "Hamlet" in Manhattan with Ethan Hawke and Bill Murray, and instead of the kingdom of Denmark there'd be the "Denmark Corporation."

But even with the text heavily cut, his "Hamlet" turned out to be as faithful to the play as any straight production. And putting "To be or not to be in" a video store - in the ACTION aisle, so Hamlet's inaction is set against a universe of manly avengers - was genius.

Does the action suit the word? Do the people sound as if that's how they always talk? It's nine busy minutes into the 1995 Nazi-era "Richard III" before a word is spoken, but Ian McKellen quells all doubt: This is Shakespeare's malformed regicidal psychopath to the letter. It's Shakespearean and movie-ish, an excellent fusion!

On the other hand, Baz Luhrmann's urban gangland "Romeo and Juliet" - sorry, "Romeo Plus Juliet" - is all zoom and whoosh, the fast cutting fighting the words. Good and pretty as Claire Danes and Leo DiCaprio are, they're not trained verse speakers. You think, this would be great if you could just get rid of that Shakespeare stuff!

And so: "Coriolanus," which Fiennes both stars in and directs. The play's set in Rome in 494 B.C., the movie in a city-state called Rome evoking nowhere in particular, but twentieth-century Northern Ireland and Bosnia generally.

The concept is simple: It's Shakespeare's battle-hardened tragic hero by way of "The Hurt Locker" (in which Fiennes had a frenzied cameo).

With the same cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, he uses a jittery, adrenaline-charged style to help us empathize with this unlikable soldier, a glassy-eyed killing machine unfit for peacetime life . . . but with a mother, played by Vanessa Redgrave, who has unfortunately mapped out a career for him in politics.

Not bloody likely!

The text is cut, some nuance is lost, but Fiennes gets what matters: The mix of firm, martial beats and messy political clatter. The realistic setting and splatter don't compete with the language. They create a thrilling framework for Shakespeare to do his magic - updated, but never upstaged.