After seeing a few bits of entertainment news covering Ralph Fiennes’ modernized adaptation of the Shakespeare play Coriolanus, I really wanted it for my Vanessa Redgrave movie collection. I was afraid it would be a difficult find, but recently snagged the only copy for sale in the only video store still around.

I sat down to watch it, and two hours later I’d been sucked in and held captive. It’s not really my kind of movie in a way and without it being Shakespeare and starring Vanessa Redgrave I wouldn’t have liked it. Fighting brutal, house to house warfare vicariously is not on my list of favorite passtimes. Oddly, it was Ralph Fiennes who pulled me in. Between Goethe and Voldemort, I sometimes forget what a deeply talented actor he is. His Coriolanus is heroic at times and also deeply flawed. His anger and arrogance coupled with his life under the crippling manipulation of his mother leave him nothing to be but explosively incapable of humility. She eventually manipulates him right into tragedy.

I’ve seen a lot of her movies, and this may be her finest performance yet. Power mad manipulative determination clothed in a mother’s deceptively soft words and gentle touch. Her expressions toward the end are so raw and ugly, yet beautiful in a way because of her ageless features and unlimited talent, that you feel pain and fear, and also a measure of compassion. Add the beauty of Shakespeare’s words, and the whole thing is almost literally mesmerizing.

As much as I love history, I really don’t enjoy reading about it in verse. Watching is another thing entirely, especially with actors whose work I really love. I think the way so many of the plays are set in quasi modern times for movies adds so much to the more traditional productions. It’s all there, but the different backdrop juxtaposed with the original verse is like experiencing it in sensory 3D. Coriolanus opened with the words A Place That Calls Itself Rome, and its Rome is dark and gritty. Dystopian, even. But there are Mercedes, odd looking tanks, and the costumes are contemporary, with quasi military uniforms for the soldiers just different enough to be different. Vanessa Redgrave wears a very utilitarian military uniform at ceremonial times. Stark and somehow adding to her gentle ruthlessness.

There is a scene where she repeatedly falls to her knees and rises in a sort of defiant supplication that elicits a push/pull of compassion and near revulsion, because of the inevitability of the outcome of her careful actions. Her son the battlescarred warrior, betrayed from every corner, is helpless in the hold of the gaze that pleads and demands simultaneously, as throughout his entire life. It is one of those film moments that as I watch it, I know it won’t be easily forgotten.

That can be said of the entirety of Coriolanus. It is a horrible, ugly, dark and brutal story, with a mirror reflection of beauty and grace in the contrast of Shakespeare’s glorious words and Vanessa Redgrave’s stunning performance. This is not a movie to be walked away from unthinking and unmoved.

Coriolanus trailer