Ralph Nathaniel Twisleston-Wykeham-Fiennes – no, we didn’t make any of that up – is a hybrid of a man. Part upper class gent, eighth cousin of the Prince of Wales and noted interpreter of the works of Shakespeare, part meaty-faced, well-built alpha male with an intimidating stare and a penchant for playing villains. His film roles, then, are unsurprisingly diverse. Here are some of the very best (for those expecting Harry Potter and his other big box office hits, you may be disappointed. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s no Fiennes showcase).
This Neil Jordan-helmed vehicle, based on the 1951 novel of the same name, is – alongside the Michael Caine-led The Quiet American (2002) – the finest adaptation of Graham Greene’s work. Unlike the latter film, it was one of the books considered by the author to be a novel rather than an entertainment, and is at its heart and intense, emotionally charged and vengeful romantic drama penned by a devout Cathloic and serial adulterer musing over the nature of faith and fidelity.
Sound dull? It isn’t. Fiennes makes full use of his glaring gaze and clipped, clear British tones, opening his narration with “This is a diary of hate.” In the role of novelist Maurice Bendrix, he retells the tale of a strained relationship with former lover Sarah Miles (Julianne Moore), ended bitterly two years before in the aftermath of the blitz on London, after a chance meeting with her husband brings the memory to the front of his mind.
The film may be slow, but the performances from both leads are gripping. The atmosphere of upper-class, wartime London is beautifully captured, the near-perpetual evening gloom and rain complementing the sour misery of the story whilst maintaining a nostalgic sense of class and the impact of the bombings on the quiet streets building in tandem with the collapsing love affair. All of this being said, however, it is Fiennes – with his authoritative stature and reserved, electric demeanour and dialogue – that carry the weight of the film and keep the audience rapt.
Another adaptation from the page, Brett Ratner’s take on Thomas Harris’ first Hannibal Lecter novel and prequel to The Silence of the Lambs (1991) sees Fiennes deliver another subdued yet intimidating performance, this time in the role of the clear-cut villain of the gory crime yarn. It takes some serious chops to be as interesting as Anthony Hopkins and to hold a candle to Tom Noonan’s mildly terrifying performance in the same role in Manhunter (1986), yet Fiennes pulls it off.
In the guise of the deeply troubled Francis Dollarhyde, Fiennes spends much of the runtime hiding out in the abandoned nursing home owned by his forebears and, seemingly against his will, stalking and slaying happy families in the night. Things take an interesting turn when, having also begun a correspondence with the infamous, incarcerated Lecter, he finds himself romantically involved with a blind young woman. Unable to see the repaired cleft palate and facial scarring that have left him cripplingly insecure – or the vast William Blake-inspired painting on his back (Harris actually referenced the wrong one) – she might be able to save him. Unfortunately, though, the ghost of his psychologically abusive aunt, meddling FBI investigator Will Graham (Ed Norton) and the painting itself have other ideas. The resulting chaos and conclusion, whilst more traditional and less visually and audibly interesting than Michael Mann’s Manhunter version, are certainly worth a watch.
Here we have our third and final screen take on a novel. Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of this Bernhard Schlink book, a team effort by the American firm Mirage Enterprises and the German Neunte Babelsburg Film, puts Fiennes in the guise of another quietly furious single man, this time playing the adult half of protagonist Michael Berg.
Aged 15 and played by David Cross, Berg is travelling through late 1950s Berlin when he falls violently ill and is escorted home by awkward tram conductor Hanna (Kate Winslet). Months later, following a visit to her apartment, the two become embroiled in a steamy affair that will go on to define Berg’s youth. Between trysts, she asks him to read to her from his collection of literary works. Later she is promoted to a new post and leaves abruptly, leaving (future) Fiennes once again abandoned by his lover.
The major plot turn comes a few years on when Berg is studying at the prestigious Heidelberg University law school, under the tutelage of a wise and impassioned Holocaust survivor played by the great Bruno Ganz. When the students are taken to observe the trial of a group of former concentration camp guards being charged with the deaths of 300 Jewish women in Poland, Berg is shocked to recognise his former lover Hanna as one of the defendants and falls into a crippling moral crisis that threatens to sink his potential career.
Through observing the trial, Berg realises that Hannah is illiterate and has been hiding it her whole life. Enter Fiennes, taking on the role for Berg’s adult life, as he lives and works alone in 80s West Berlin and reflects on the affair, his divorce and his troubled rapport with his daughter. Recalling the novels and plays he used to read to her, he begins narrating them into a tape recorder and mailing the cassettes to Hanna in prison, who is now serving a life sentence. After many years he finally begins to visit and the two take the first steps of rebuilding their bizarre relationship, trying and ultimately failing to repair the damage that her past has done and to prevent a tragic end.
The film generated much backlash and controversy upon its release, thanks to its harsh look at the realities of the Holocaust, a portrayal of a former SS guard that many thought to be far too sympathetic, a love affair between an underage teen and a grown woman that some labelled abuse masked by gender bias and the fact that its author labelled the book as heavily autobiographical.
Again, this is slow but compelling stuff with an excellent all-round cast, Fiennes doing his brooding best to keep the audience involved in his private anguish. All things considered, he does a good job.
We finish with something more, in some respects, light-hearted. There are few more impressive things a filmmaker can achieve than an effective black comedy, and Martin McDonagh and his cast and crew delivered just that with this brilliant, oft-overlooked tale of two hit-men hiding out in the eponymous historical Belgian town.
In the aftermath of a job gone wrong that resulted in the death of a young boy, first-time assassin Ray (Colin Farrell) and his weary, experienced partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are ordered by their demented employer, the mob boss Harry Waters (Fiennes), to flee London and hide out in a sleepy tourist hotspot on the continent. Ken does his best to make the most of the experience, taking in the sights and historical anecdotes and trying to take his traumatised colleague’s mind off what he’s done. Ray, on the other hand, is a twitchy overgrown schoolboy who couldn’t be less interested in antiquity and instead spends his time drinking and trying to pick up a salacious Dutch film director, resulting in some bizarre and hilarious encounters with a grumpy American dwarf and some wise-cracking prostitutes.
When a sympathetic, paternal Ken learns of Harry’s plan to cut off the loose end and is instructed to kill his disgraced protégé, he opts instead to let him go. As a man of honour – a concept close to mad Harry’s heart – he admits what he’s done and rationalises it to his boss, prepared to face the consequences.
This is where Fiennes, all but a minor supporting character up to this point and sharing the screen with two brilliant performers, comes in. Such is his charisma that he soon takes over, spitting rage and profanity as the short-tempered cockney kingpin as he storms off to Bruges for a final showdown. Along the way, amidst all the swearing and the insults, he relates his iron-clad views on the morality of the job and the gentleman’s code of behaviour, the balance of these two sides both hilarious and somehow almost touching.
In Bruges is the sort of film that will reel you in from the first moment and leave you wondering where its bizarre story could possibly be going, the characters too endearing to abandon. The dialogue is sharp and filthy, flawlessly written and endlessly quotable. Fiennes’ performance, purposefully overblown and laden with self-aware gallows humour, is reminiscent of Gary Oldman in Leon and, despite its fairly sparse screen time, is as entertaining and essential to the rest of the film as every other hugely original and imaginative ingredient.
What do YOU think?
Do you love Ralph Fiennes as Voldermort?
Perhaps you loved him in the recent Wes Anderson movie, The Grand Budapest?
Let us know in the comments!