With his aquiline nose, translucent skin and deep pale eyes, Ralph Fiennes certainly makes an impression. And that is even before he speaks or emotes – with his melodic eyes and brows that seem to convey depths of inner feeling. It is no wonder GQ Culture considers him the ultimate cosmopolitan, “both parodically English and consummately European, the way classical music isn’t bound by borders, either”.
The most topical of his prodigious work right now is perhaps ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, soon to be broadcast through NT at Home. It’s directed by Simon Godwin – who smilingly revealed that his young children consider him a ‘cheeky daddy’ – summing up many of his approaches to Shakespearean adaptations. Yes, the language is rhythmic to the ear. Yes, the drama sets the heart racing. But how wasteful would it be if one couldn’t use it to make people laugh? This production is sensually intoxicating, accommodating to the eyes with Cleopatra’s sumptuous wardrobe and the occasional flashing of Ralph Fiennes’ torso (so well-preserved by ashtanga yoga); to the ears by the marvellous juxtaposition of Okonedo’s fiery deliveries and Fiennes’ more mellow voice. To set these all in an idyllic place, the National Theatre rolls out an impressive swimming pool as part of the rotating stage. The casting choice is well-balanced. It enables Okonedo to shine as a lustful, mercurial, bewitching Cleopatra possessed by her attraction to Antony.
I sometimes got the feeling that Okonedo’s Cleopatra was taking most of the thunder whilst at the National Theatre but this is misleading. Fiennes may not possess the famed velvety voice that infused a regal tone into the deliveries of Laurence Olivier or Richard Burton, but his voice allows precious insight into a Roman general less defined by public pageants and macho battles. He is more animated through his deep-seated yet death-haunted love. Antony springs into life from hollow-eyed marble statues and becomes a superlative being. It is one of the rare Fiennes’ performances where the emotion is worn so outwardly. Perhaps Okonedo’s seduction is too inducing or perhaps Shakespeare’s verse permeates the body and bursts out so uncontrollably to the surface, Fiennes’ Antony is too impactful to miss.
I first consciously encountered Fiennes in The English Patient (I say consciously, as I had yet to realise that he metamorphosed into Voldemort!) In this, Fiennes is utterly un-English, playing a Hungarian count flying airplanes around African deserts for the Royal Geographical Society. Watching the film was an utterly cathartic experience, as one poetically races through every sinew of human emotions in the space of less than three hours. Scott Thomas, who plays the object of Fiennes’ ill-fated yet irresistible love, later quipped, “seeing The English Patient is wonderfully draining, but imagine acting in it for six months”.’ Yet, the catharsis is worth every exertion, and one emerges from this marathon only wishing to immerse in it all again. Amidst the fragmented flashbacks, the infinite yet every-morphing deserts and the frantic chaos that was Egypt a century ago, the clarity of his acting pierces through. The film encapsulates a talent of Fiennes: the conveyance of emotional magnitude through minimal actions. His count, Laszlo de Almasy, was first programmed to conceal – initially due to his nature and then to hide his badly-burnt face and immobile body. Yet, the less that is spoken, the more one senses. Here, love drives everyone mad: mad to defy reason, and mad with cruelty towards one’s beloved.
This capacity for evil is fully played out in Schindler’s List, in the role of the Nazi commandant, Amon Goth. Fiennes’ Goth shoots Jews randomly whilst relaxing on his balcony, casually rapes women and remains unrepentant with a piercing stare up until the very end. Many have remarked about the end of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, where the titular role is asked thrice, ‘repent!’ and replied negatively every time, in a depiction of convicted unrepentance to the end. Fiennes’ performance gives this phenomenon more mindless evil. One follows his deep eyes closely, scared by their self-assured hunt for destruction.
Such eyes are also capable of undiluted bliss, as played out in Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Greene’s The End of the Affair. In the fleeting joy of Sarah and Henry’ union, Fiennes impresses upon one an infinite instant of romantic and spiritual fulfilment.
So far, this list has done injustice to Fiennes’ less-discussed comic presence. Of course, he stars as the verbally uncouth yet sartorially impeccable ‘M’ in the Bond franchise, is pitch-perfect, invoking bathos with a straight face. His short appearance in the Coen Brother’s Hail, Caesar! as a tweed-wearing and caveat-wrapped director stands out with its technical precision. Even in his voice-acting as the prideful hunter, Lord Victor Quartermaine, in Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Rare Rabbit injects much alacrity. This comic talent is given a full stage in Wes Anderson’s hauntingly beautiful drama, The Grand Budapest Hotel, where Fiennes enthralls as the vainglorious yet utterly transfixing concierge Monsieur Gustav. The role is exquisite, inviting one to marvel at his every word and movement. His mastery of the Cockney accent in In Bruges allows a hilarious transformation into a verbose and violent gangster, who cajoles and delights. A less determinately comical but more energetic role as a Rock n’ Roll star in Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash releases a wilder side of Fiennes.
A more contemplative side is played out in roles such as the adaptation of The Constant Gardener, where Fiennes plays a diplomat well-versed in nurturing temperance, as the title suggests, yet elopes with a rebel lecture-attendee and eventually embarks on a dangerous course. This transformation is played out on a subtle scale. This inner debate is given force in his generous adaptation of Coriolanus, alongside weighty thespians such as Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox. One sees a proud soldier ill-programmed for the complexity of this world, yet struggling violently until the very end – much like in his depiction of Antony.
Fiennes is obsessed with Russian culture – he’s acted in Russian and directed a film (The White Crow) about Rudolf Nureyev, a Russian ballet dancer. Perhaps it is this essential cosmopolitanism that so draws one to Fiennes’ artistic expressions. His knowledge of everything from Beethoven to post-modern art and a life-long of studied enlightenment has enabled him to convey an inviting knowingness that draws us to his inner world. He grew up in a crowded and ever-moving household that had more pedigree and culture than money, culminating in a ferocious appetite for culture. This is a man, who, in real life, knows directors of art galleries across continents and hops on the Eurostar to go to Paris – a man whose life has been steeped in the immersion and understanding and creation of artistic experiences. One is perpetually fascinated, eager to discover more. His first role after being catapulted into fame by The Schindler’s List, defying all expectations, was to play Hamlet in a small London theatre, delivering the famed soliloquy with his back to the audience. If the saying that every Shakespearean actor plays Hamlet when young(ish) and King Lear when aged rings true here, one can yet await in delicious anticipation of Fiennes’ crowning Lear.