Wednesday, January 30, 2013

In Character: Ralph Fiennes

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.

Spider (2002)
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)
Justin Quayle
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)
Harry Waters
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)
Amon Goeth
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)
Sunshine (1999)
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)
Coriolanus (2011)
Skyfall (2012)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Steve Buscemi
John Cazale
Don Cheadle
Patricia Clarkson
Cliff Curtis
Jeff Daniels
Viola Davis
the Cast of Django Unchained
Michael Clarke Duncan
Chiwetel Ejiofor
William Fichtner
Brendan Gleeson
Bruce Greenwood
Philip Baker Hall
Woody Harrelson
John Hawkes
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Richard Jenkins
Erland Josephson
Elias Koteas
Heath Ledger
the Cast of Lincoln
William H. Macy
Christopher McDonald
Alfred Molina
David Morse
Emily Mortimer
Gary Oldman
Jason Patric
Guy Pearce
Kevin Pollak
Joe Pantoliano
John C. Reilly
Sam Rockwell
Campbell Scott
Michael Shannon
David Strathairn
Tilda Swinton
Danny Trejo
Stanley Tucci
Emily Watson
Shea Whigham


  1. This is probably really embarrassing for a film fan but I've yet to see Schindler's List >_> I guess now is the time where I give more recommendations. I've got Samantha Morton, Parker Posey (the queen of the indies), and Sarah Polley. I'll leave it at that because I think In Character needs more ladies.

    1. I actually know a lot of people who haven't seen Schindler's List. Some are afraid, others are indifferent - either way, I highly recommend it. It isn't easy, but it's essential.

      In Character definitely needs more ladies, and those are three perfect choices. I've been focusing on slightly more known people lately, so I'm going to scale back and cover a few more obscure people in the ensuing weeks. But expect posts on all of those women soon!

    2. Thanks Alex. Schindler's List is just one of those movies that I've been meaning to watch for the longest time but just never got around to. If we're going by imdb ratings it's the most popular film I've yet to see. I wouldn't say I'm afraid but I do have to admit that I'm not as big on war films as everybody else is (even though there are a few that I love)so they're usually not on my top priority of films to watch. Heck I still haven't seen Deer Hunter! But one day I will get around to those films as I go through my never ending film watching journey.

    3. Never ending indeed. I like to think that I've seen a lot of movies, but there's always more. Always. One of the things I love about film: there really is no end.

      The Deer Hunter is in my Top 5 of all time. Cannot speak highly enough of it.

    4. Oh for another male in character I would like you to do Paul Schneider. You've already talked about several movies that feature him so you might as well do one.

    5. Damn fine actor, that one. Damn fine.

    6. Parks and Rec is actually my favorite show currently on tv and I actually felt kind of bad for Schneider since his character seemed to be the least popular on the show and once he got replaced by Adam Scott and Rob Lowe after the second season people kind of forgot about him. Despite this I still think he had some great moments during his brief run on the series.

    7. I never got into that show, but rarely do I get into sitcoms. I would like to watch it because it sounds great, and with a great great cast.

    8. Oh yes the cast is fantastic and the humor is very clever. The brief first season is definitely the weakest but keep on watching and once you start the second season you'll become hooked.

    9. Okay that makes me feel better. I watched all of the first season and was very unfazed. Really glad to hear it picked up.

    10. Believe me you're not the only one who was left unimpressed with the first season. They really picked up in quality once the second season started. Big dramatic difference. I also think its done a great job of avoiding all the mistakes that The Office made during its run.

    11. Oh, and the many many mistakes that show made. Yikes.

  2. Ralph Fiennes. Definitely one of the best actors working today. Spider is my favorite performance from him. My 2nd favorite performance of his is In Bruges where he has some of the film's best lines.


    I'm eager to see what he'll do for the James Bond series now that he's the new M...

    1. Hell yeah man, glad you're such a fan. Spider would be my pick for number 2. Such amazing work there.

      I'm damn curious to see what he does with the Bond series as well.

  3. I love Fiennes. He is easily my favourite baddie-playing actor, mainly due to his intensity. Amon Goeth is one of my most favourite performances of all time.

    1. Goeth is a beast, isn't he? Impossible to empathize with, but Fiennes just plays him so perfectly. I'm still in awe of his work there. Glad you're a Fiennes fan!

    2. I honestly think that if it were possible to find faults with Schindler's List, the biggest one would be that I end up being more enchanted by Goeth than Schindler.

    3. Hmm, very interesting. But fair. You should consider writing an essay or something for your blog. Really interesting concept there.

  4. Ralph Fiennes is by far and beyond my favourite actor - as you say, he has a unique intensity to him. His performance in Schindler's List is my favourite performance of all time. Following that, here are my favourite performances of his, ranked:

    2. Quiz Show
    3. Strange Days
    4. In Bruges
    5. Spider
    6. The Constant Gardener
    7. The English Patient
    8. Coriolanus
    9. The Reader
    10. Cemetery Junction
    11. The Duchess

    ...and so on. Yeah, I could go on forever about this guy.

    1. Oh I didn't know he was your favorite actor! That's so cool. Also didn't know his work as Goeth was your favorite ever. That's a great choice. He's beyond flawless there.

      Being that you're such an immense Fiennes fan, I must say I'm a little relieved that his Harry Potter role isn't on your list. I thought people would be upset that I didn't include it in my Top 6, but he's been so good in so many films.

  5. You're definitely right about his intensity, it's a trait. He is one of the best actors out there, never missing a beat. Loved him in English patient and Schindler's list. Great post!

    1. Thanks, D! Fiennes is definitely one of the best out there. He's always so very good.

      Thanks for reading/commenting!

  6. I honestly cannot be the only person who thinks he should have won for Schindler's List. (And perhaps nominated for Quiz Show.)

    1. Oh my goodness no - I definitely think he should've won for Schindler. Best Supporting Actor was so damn strong in '93, and, in my opinion, the least deserving performance won. (Which is oddly reminiscent to how I think that category will go this year... and to the same guy.)

      No, I misspoke, Arkin would be my last place pick. Waltz > De Niro > Hoffman > Jones > Arkin.

  7. I wish he would've won for Schindler's List. He's such a fantastic actor. As a massive Harry Potter fan, I was so happy when I heard he was cast to play Voldemort, and he absolutely nailed it.

    1. He DEFINITELY should've won for Schindler. Definitely. I'm not the biggest Potter fan in the world, but Fiennes really did kill that role. Amazing work.

  8. Great picks! Love seeing In Bruges so high, but I couldn't agree more on Schindler's List. Fantastic performance. Really need to see Spider now, and I should rewatch The English Patient.

    1. Thanks man! Oh I cannot recommend Spider highly enough. Essential Cronenberg right there. Just so odd.

      I rewatched The English Patient for this post. That's just a damn fine film.

  9. Great great post! I think I saw all of his movies except for Coriolanus and that recent one he did for TV. He never delivered bad performance.

    It's interesting that you mention anger about Justin in Constant Gardener - for me that was such a different performance from Fiennes because I didn't see any anger - I just saw heartbreak from that quiet man who lost his love. That scene where he remembers Tessa and cries in their house is heartbreaking.

    I think he has the uncanny ability to make the monstrous characters into human beings - his characters in Schindler's List and Red Dragon still had some capacity for affection and he played that beautifully.

    1. Thanks! ALL of his movies?! That's awesome!

      Coriolanus isn't my kind of flick (Shakespeare vernacular, Gerald Butler) but Fiennes is remarkable in it.

      I probably should've been more clear about Justin's anger, because it is completely internal. Not overt in that Fiennes-defining way. Like the scene in which he thinks he overhears Tessa mocking him, but it's actually just a misunderstanding. There's anger in Fiennes reaction, you know? Very powerful.

      That capacity for affection is what I think he strives to find in those characters. He said he hated Amon Goeth, the man, but enjoyed exploring the character. Very tricky, but very effective.

  10. Intense is the operative word, can play the embodiment of the Third Riech with horrifying realism or a heart-breaking widower looking for the truth. It's odd actually now that I think about it, there is no one real singular moment when Oscar Schindler 'sees the light' and decides to save his Jewish workforce. Since Neeson and Fiennes look so simliar, it makes the atrocities that Goeth commits all the more real and horrific for Schindler, acting as a not-so-shady mirror. Realizing it is he and his people that enabled this monster. On that note is Liam Neeson next? Would love to see that In Character. By the way, thank you for reading my recent stuff! Keep reading. I am starting to come up with ideas for movie lists in February.

    1. I've been wanting to pen an essay about Schindler's lack of an epiphany in that film for a long long time. That's one thing that makes the movie so great to me. There's never an "Okay, I have to do this," moment of reflection. He just... does it.

      I'd love to do a Neeson In Character, but the next few are going to be of more obscure people. Gotta give some love to the lesser known peeps.

      I love reading your blog! Can't wait for your lists.

    2. Great topic for analysis, love these in-character posts. Shedding light on the actors that need more notoriety, part of an internal debate I have is what really makes a film work, the lead working-off of the the supporting or vice-versa. I also like trying to guess which performance you think is the best in their respective careers... this one was a pretty simple though, it could only be one.

    3. Sometimes I don't even know what their career-best performance is. I discover it in the writing or the research. But yeah, for Fiennes, it could only be one.

      I honestly think every actor in a film is as important as all the others. No matter their screentime. In my flick Earrings, I cast this guy Nathan for one 40-second scene, but it's as important a scene as any in the movie. He came in, nailed it in one take, and I'm thinking about casting him as the lead in my next film. Every actor is important.

  11. Magnificent post on one of my favorite performers of all time. So many film characters I love here. I think my favorite Fiennes performance is probably in Spider. Though since I haven't seen Schindler's List in a *very* long time, I can't make a fair comparison.

    I always crack up when I think of his role in In Bruges. "Fuck you! You're the fucking inanimate object!"

    Look forward to your essay on Schindler's lack of an epiphany. I may even rewatch the movie soon.

    1. I saw him three times on stage too (God of Carnmage Oedipus and Prospero) he was brilliant. Oedipus and Prospero. I could see twice each and I saw two different men saying the same verse. His first Oedipus was an aggressive leader, who deserves his punishment ( not so hard, of course, what Sophocles and he inflicted on himself ). On the other evening I saw an intellectual who is going to pieces as he realizes his sin and accepts the verdict. His supplication for his children was heartbreaking. He owns such an emotional deepness, I can't find by any other actor. He is one of the greatest if not The Greatest with restrained very fine acting tools.
      For my stylistic mistakes I beg your pardon, I'm not English and have to use a vocabulary.

    2. Your English is excellent. So Fiennes played both the aggressive Oedipus and the intellectual Oedipus on stage? Interesting!

    3. Steph: He's SO good in Spider, and I definitely recommend rewatching Schindler's List soon, it worked wonders for me when I rewatched it a few years ago. Very very good.

      zsuzsanna: I would love to see him on stage. So cool that you've seen him in so much. He's definitely one of The Greatest. I also agree with Steph, your English is very very good!

  12. I think just his VOICE alone puts him in a league above most, everything else he does just enhances his performances more so.

    1. Hell yeah man. Dude's voice is magnetic. So calm, but can be so terrifying. Love his intensity.

  13. If this had been posted on a popular website you'd certainly be attacked by the masses for not including Fiennes' work in the Harry Potter series. Not to say I'd agree at all, but one must say his role is probably the best thing about the damn series, if not for Alan Rickman's Severus Snape.

    Fiennes might be one of the few actors out there who hasn't been in a completely worthless film or hasn't taken a completely worthless role so far in his career. This says a lot about the man and how much he cares for his craft.

    The role of Amon Goeth is, without a doubt, a tour-de-force. One of the most haunting performances ever delivered on film. I can't say enough about it and probably never will. Definitely in my top 10 male performances of all-time. It is good to see that he didn't fizzle out after this role like many other actors famously have after portraying incredibly evil people. This is yet another testament of his talent and perseverance as an actor.
    I also agree with you as in how refreshing it was to see him play a comedic role for In Bruges. I really enjoyed it.

    Great post!

    1. Oh believe me, I've taken a fair amount of shit on this blog for my complete and utter aversion to Harry Potter (and Lord of the Rings, and... well, moving on).

      I agree that Fiennes has never delivered a bad or worthless performance. At least not one I've seen. And you're right, the praise one can give his work as Goeth is never ending. It's simply that good.

      Thanks for reading!