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Ralph Fiennes in the title role in 'Coriolanus'

To update or not to update, that is the question when attempting to modernize Shakespeare. Whether ‘tis nobler merely to put characters into modern dress, thereby making them feel contemporary, or actually to have them spouting the jargon and slang of today to drive home the point that this isn’t your father’s Shakespeare.

Director Ralph Fiennes, with help from screenwriter John Logan, has chosen the first path for his scorching new film version of Coriolanus, in which he also plays the title role. In Fiennes’ Coriolanus, characters speak into cell phones and address television cameras, but it’s Shakespearean verse they declaim, albeit with the cadence of everyday speech.

In vigorously shaking the dust off one of the Bard’s lesser-known tragedies, the British star effectively uses a mix of contemporary costumes, settings and scenery to make the story feel politically and socially up to the minute. (The film opens today, Dec. 2 in New York and Los Angeles for a one-week Oscar-qualifying run and then will be released nationally Jan. 20.)

Coriolanus is about a Roman military leader who’s incapable of bending his will to that of the people. His inability to compromise, despite the pleadings of his ambitious mother (Vanessa Redgrave), in the end cost him everything. Other cast members in the film include Scotsman Gerard Butler, who plays Coriolanus’ chief military rival, and Jessica Chastain as Coriolanus’ wife.)

Part of what makes the movie seem so startlingly contemporary is its urban setting. When Coriolanus finds himself in political confrontations, it is with fellow politicians in meeting rooms or at TV studios, or with demonstrators who have stormed public spaces – echoes of Occupy Wall Street. When he fights military battles, it’s guerilla warfare in blasted-out city streets and shell-scarred abandoned buildings (the film was shot in Belgrade in Serbia).

All of which makes this Coriolanus hum with urgency and a muscular vitality often lacking in dustier productions.

Fiennes isn’t the first director who has reconceived a Shakespeare play to make it relevant while still keeping it true to the playwright’s words. (Movies like Ten Things I Hate About You and Scotland, Pa., contemporary films featuring plots loosely lifted from the Bard but minus his words, are horses of a different color.)

In 1937, Orson Welles galvanized New York stage audiences when his Mercury Theatre company mounted a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar set in a Fascist state. The Bard’s early Romans were transformed into black-shirted enforcers who would have been right at home saluting then Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

Welles’ production was recreated on film in Me and Orson Welles, the 2008 movie in which a stage-struck youth (Zac Efron) joins the Mercury Theatre and ends up helping put on Julius Caesar. (British actor Christian McKay played Welles.)

Even more imaginative was a 1995 film version of Richard III, which starred Ian McKellen in the title role. Directed by Richard Loncraine, the movie transplanted Shakespeare’s historical saga to 1930s England, but it was an England ruled by an all-powerful Richard, who was a Hitler-like tyrant. In a particularly audacious turn, Richard delivers part of his “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech while standing at a urinal. (Annette BeningJim BroadbentKristin Scott Thomas and Maggie Smith also starred.)

Another notable entry in the updated Shakespeare movie category is Romeo + Juliet (1996), an amped-up version of the tragedy about teen lovers directed by Aussie Baz Luhrmann. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, the film featured modern urban settings, guns and bling but mostly remained true to the playwright’s text.

Two other recent, modern-day versions of classic Shakespearean tragedies worth checking out are a 2010 Macbeth, which aired on PBS and starred Patrick Stewart as the flawed Scottish king in what looked like a bombed out bunker, and a 2000 Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke. In the latter film, after his father, a business mogul who was head of the Manhattan-based Denmark Corporation, is murdered, Hamlet becomes enmeshed in high-stakes corporate intrigue.

Sometimes, a Shakespeare movie can be totally modern despite its old-fashioned period costumes and setting. It’s all in the timing. Consider the 1944 version of Henry V.

Laurence Olivier, who also directed, wore a bowl hair cut and tights, carried a sword and rode a horse when he played the medieval monarch. But the movie came out while England was in the thick of fighting World War II and its story, about a resourceful young English king leading his troops into battle, spoke directly to viewers. After Olivier rousingly delivered Henry’s heartfelt St. Crispin’s Day speech (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers …”), the extras playing his soldiers weren’t the only ones cheering.


How do you like your Shakespeare, modern or old-fashioned?


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By Leah Rozen