Film releases: January 20

Shakespeare speaks to all ages, and sometimes the ages speak back. Coriolanus, directed with thrilling modernity by its star Ralph Fiennes, is an SOS from a city/state calling itself Rome but shot in Belgrade. “Save our souls,” it cries (or perhaps “Springclean our Shakespeare”) from a near or middle east that sometimes seems to be the Balkans, at others Iraq or Afghanistan. The cinematographer, thriving in both the wildernesses of war and the uneasy caesuras of peace, is The Hurt Locker’s Barry Ackroyd.

Shakespeare’s most political play, when not on the battlefield, is all about democracy versus demagoguery. On screen, framed between war sequences, the politicking has a startling modern bite. Army-fatigued as Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, the general turned aspiring statesman, Fiennes is a bald-shaven eagle with a victor’s sneer of pride. This man who would be consul, this ex-slayer of Volscians – we have just seen and heard the victory bulletins on TV (surreally delivered by British anchorman Jon Snow) – woos the voters while despising the sycophancies needed to win them: the flaunted war wounds, the facile promises…

The play needs a gritty embrace and gets it. That and a flawlessly chosen cast. Vanessa Redgrave is superb as Volumnia, the hero’s mother, carved from glittering stalagmite, wheedling but indomitable as she urges him back to the fray and later – it is Shakespeare’s cleverest coup – more eloquent still in imploring him towards peace. The Menenius of Brian Cox is a bluff mentor, maddened by a mutable protégé. The Aufidius of Gerard Butler, a Volscian leader with a Scottish snarl, takes the last act’s Coriolanus – self-exiled by Rome’s rejection – to his gleaming, perfidious bosom. (The film hints at Shakespeare’s own hint of a near-homoerotic bonding.)

Fiennes the director’s modernistic mischiefs are right on the money. Shakespeare’s play foresaw the rise of “spin” and the harlot ways of political popularity. To his hero’s scornful, proto-Thatcheresque pride – Coriolanus would surely endorse “There is no such thing as society” – the play’s wise counsel answers, “What is the city but the people?” That line echoes on through the story and the centuries, though it is Shakespeare’s genius – and the triumph of this movie – that we find too a kind of honour, and tragic heroism, in the protagonist’s intransigence.

A week is a long time in screen politics, especially when the rest of the week includes Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar and Madonna’s W.E. The first laboriously hoovers up 50 years of FBI history under its founding chief. The second is the story of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII. Both films are would-be mythomanic. Both resemble wax museum exhibitions brought to fitful semblances of life.

Leonardo DiCaprio starts off wadded and wattled as the old J. Edgar Hoover, his narration nearly scuppering this biopic from the start. DiCaprio has studied the Federal Bureau chief’s vocal style to a point of stuck-needle exactitude. Eastwood directs in his workmanlike-but-unenthused style: roll camera, turn on sound recorder, move actors between chalk marks. (Someone should measure the difference in creative brain activity between a Clint movie like this and one like Unforgiven.)

The undetermined nature of Hoover’s private life – his longtime companion was FBI colleague Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) – is given generous screen time. Scenarist Dustin Lance Black wrote Milk, is a spare-time gay activist (one of those people Eastwood would have shot in the Dirty Harry films) and clearly warmed to the notion of Hoover’s hidden homosexuality. But even here, as plot years advance, the odour of greasepaint obtrudes and gauche old-age impersonations take over. In contrast, Judi Dench, as Hoover’s domineering mum, takes no more than two minutes to establish character, conviction, wit, passion, authority – and later to age convincingly by half a century.

J. Edgar is earnestly watchable. But it makes no contribution to a better understanding of Hoover, beyond the predictable hypothesis that his “marriage” to the FBI explained everything: the crime-fighting fanaticism, the repressed private life, the Americophile worldview that was basically mom-and-apple-pie turned quasi-fascistic.

Madonna sweeps all before her in W.E., like some evangelistic cleaning lady deciding that a famous royal episode fits just such a perfect, jewelled dustpan in just such an ideal corner of biopic cinema. King Edward VIII’s abdication-prompting love for American divorcee Wallis Simpson was, depending on your choice, either a nasty mess on the floor of monarchical history or a blithe scattering of romantic stardust.

Madonna inclines to the latter. When combined with her pugnacious glam-pop feminism, this results in a portrait of Simpson that is stellar beyond belief – English actress Andrea Riseborough plays her as a kind of intellectually prodigal, champagne-witted Zelda Fitzgerald – while Edward (James D’Arcy) is a pathetic lovelorn wimp with the charisma of a hat-stand. The real Edward was more than this, and also possibly worse: a Hitler sympathiser before abdication, after it a parasitic, self-pitying royal retiree.

Not content with arguing for rose-tinted retrospection, Madonna and co-screenwriter Alek Keshishian burden the film with a parallel plot, set in the present, about a Wallis-worshipping New Yorker (Abbie Cornish) wandering from an unhappy marriage into a Sotheby’s pre-auction exhibition, where Simpson’s effects are on show and love lurks in the guise of a young security guard.

For some, the film will be paper hankie time, for others paper bag. In the schmaltz-offset column, Riseborough is brilliant beyond the call, outclassing her material. And the production values are fine. The story is set down elegantly, silkily, expansively, like a dandy’s suicide note.

Eulogised by some UK critics, John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses is a meditation on the immigrant experience in Britain. Archive footage – vast in amount and edited with vatic momentum – alternates with Alaska landscapes shot with a visionary, dazzling stillness. The film seems to say: “From the edge of the world look back at the teeming humanity of the African and Indian diasporas.” Listen too. The soundtrack combines eerie, eternal-sounding music (Parsifal, Arvo Pärt) with textual recitations from Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Eliot and many, many more.

The director comes from the Black Audio Film Collective, which burnished our consciences in the 1980s with such works as Handsworth Songs. The Nine Muses divides itself into nine parts, noting first that all the muses were born to Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. Ergo: art is recall, culture is remembrance.

Much of this is majestic. But a thought kept fidgeting in my head. Do we need quite so many dead white males singing the tragedies and trials of the black experience? By the time we got to “To be or not to be”, after being bombarded with The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, Under Milk Wood and the rest, I began to think, “Okay, enough.” White society is blamed for a lot in this film. But apparently it still has the last word on culture and history, white or black.

Postmodernism goes postal in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, a thriller so brain-damagingly directionless and derivative (La Femme Nikita, North by Northwest etc) that it would be disowned even by dross aficionado Quentin Tarantino. Gina American Gladiator Carano caroms around the US chasing or being chased by Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor. You need a diploma in Gobbledegook to know what is going on, never mind to care.

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