When I think of Ralph Fiennes, my mind immediately recollects the actor’s unique intensity. His physical acting can require no movement, but given the role, I’ll sit in fear of everything a Fiennes character is doing (or saying, or thinking). But upon diving deeper into his body of work, it’s clear that, from my perspective, Fiennes is just as capable of evoking genuine compassion as he is at fostering angst.
He’s one of the very best, most impeccably well-trained actors currently in the game. Whether playing gentle, boisterous, or psychopathic (or all three), the man has an undeniable power.
Five Essential Roles
Quiz Show (1994)
Charles Van Doren
When we meet Charles Van Doren in Robert Redford’s superb Quiz Show, we meet an intellectualize dork, if you will. The Van Dorens were smart, rich, and world renowned, and young Charles was just starting to make a name for himself as a career academic. Throughout the film, Fiennes plays him as educated, kind, nerdy, a tad pretentious, and wholly innocent. It isn’t until NBC studio heads approach Van Doren to help them fix an immensely popular game show, Twenty One, that the scholar (and the actor playing him) is really put to the test.
Initially, Van Doren is insulted by the notion of cheating, but there’s a great moment in the film in which Van Doren is forced to cheat or be cheated on live television. Only a handful of men are in on the joke, and Fiennes’ refined performance makes them (and the audience) sweat it out appropriately. As the scam grows larger, Fiennes’ subtle desperation shines brighter. Charles Van Doren was a man of dignity, repute, and lasting shame. A character arc Fiennes rides impeccably.
The English Patient (1996)
Count László de Almásy
Fiennes’ work in this Best Picture winner is really two separate performances. In the present, he’s the English patient, a man physically deformed from critical burns, and all but dead from a broken heart. In flashbacks, he’s Count László de Almásy, a determined cartographer and impassioned romantic. When Almásy entices an affair with a married woman (Kristen Scott Thomas), desire takes hold, and fate is all but assumed. In these scenes, Fiennes expertly displays his knack for sensitivity. As a lover, Almásy is ungodly compassionate, and once that love is taken from him, he is maddened with rage. A rage that quickly results in injury and fatal acceptance. In Almásy, Fiennes was again able to establish and masterfully execute a fully realized arc.
David Cronenberg’s Spider is a film about a deranged man who quietly wonders around, mumbling incomprehensible nothings to himself. He slowly fusses about in his tiny room in a halfway house. He shuffles along the street, aimlessly, without the thought of anything. He stares, he thinks, he murmurs – so, basically, the film is a damn tough sell. It’s a psychological character study about a man we’re slowly given a reason to care about. It really shouldn’t work, but the main reason it does is because of Fiennes’ steadfast devotion. Through seamless flashbacks, we get a sense of who Spider is (or was…), but in the present, the actor presents a man so far removed from reality, that it’s quite unsettling to watch. By the time the film is concluded, we’re left wondering what other actor alive could’ve played Spider this well? Fancy that.
The Constant Gardner (2005)
It seems that the Fiennes characters I’m most drawn to are those of ordinary men inexplicably thrown into desperate situations. Whether these men agree to play along, or are blinded by love, removed by psychosis, or, in the case of Justin Quayle, propelled by revenge, there’s a certain hopelessness that Fiennes brings to his characters that I am completely taken with.
As a congenial diplomat attempting to discover his wife’s murderer, Quayle is a man driven mad with torment, guilt, political provocation, and utter misunderstanding. As he gets closer to the truth, it’s haunting to watch his obsessiveness cloud his notions of personal safety. An unwavering performance of restraint and anger.
In Bruges (2008)
Here’s something we don’t get to see too much of: Ralph Fiennes, sardonic comedian. As a scathing and ruthless crime boss, we hear plenty about Harry before we actually see him. We hear him narrate a hilariously profane message he’s left for one of his employees, we hear of his loyalty, anger, and ability to be a colossal prick. And when we finally meet him, Ralph Fiennes certainly doesn’t disappoint. Tailored in impeccable suits, his eyes bulging with furor, his cadence bathed in amusing Cockney – from the moment we meet Harry, it’s clear that we’re in for a different kind of Ralph Fiennes. Sure, his energy and emotional violence is certainly there, but the hilarity in which Fiennes goes about executing it makes for one of the most amusing characters the actor has ever played.
The Best of the Best
Schindler’s List (1993)
It’s always difficult to end these In Character posts with a performance that helped shape the actor’s entire body of work. In rare cases, it would almost seem more appropriate to begin with an actor’s best role, as opposed to leading up to it. This is especially true for Fiennes violent, unflinching and perfect work as Nazi SS Officer Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List. In the introduction to this post, I made specific mention of the fear that Fiennes brings to his characters.
But looking back, most of the characters on this list are not bad men. They are kind, noble warriors fighting for what they think is right. The fear that accompanies Fiennes through every one of his characters was established in Goeth. In short, Fiennes’ work in Schindler’s List set the precedent for his entire career. No matter who he plays or what he does, there will always be Goeth’s cold, hollow eyes lurking somewhere underneath.
As Goeth, Fiennes delivers one of the finest acting performances I’ve ever seen. It’s the work of such a calculating and senseless man, that I have no idea how a human being would even attempt to bring him to life. But, in Fiennes’ words, to portray Goeth he had to find the humanity in him, the banality and mundaneness that the real man found in his horrifying work.
To say Fiennes pulled it off would be a drastic understatement. What’s on screen is a man of horrific self-honor. A man who derives as much pleasure from making love as he does from assassinating naked concentration camp prisoners from the balcony of his lavish home. He’s a man so far removed from any semblance of compassion, that it is virtually impossible for the audience to pretend to empathize with him. Fiennes knows this, and that is precisely how he plays him. You don’t have to find value in the real life character, but it’s impossible not to appreciate the immense talent of the man playing him.
Other Notable Roles
|In Strange Days|
Wuthering Heights (1992)
Strange Days (1995)
The End of the Affair (1999)
The Good Thief (2002)
Red Dragon (2002)
The White Countess (2005)
Harry Potter series (2005-2011)
The Duchess (2008)
The Reader (2008)
The Hurt Locker (2009)
the Cast of Django Unchained
Michael Clarke Duncan
Philip Baker Hall
Philip Seymour Hoffman
the Cast of Lincoln
William H. Macy
John C. Reilly