The poshness of British actors has been much discussed of late, and they don’t come much posher than Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes. Haut-boho background, eighth cousin to the Prince of Wales; RADA-trained, RSC-honed; first name pronounced not Ralph but “Rayfe”. Yet Fiennes’s career has been so eclectic and unpredictable that he has somehow managed to sidestep the “posh” tag.
Still, I don’t suppose that background hurt. Not for Ralph the years of struggle and a gruelling apprenticeship in walk-on parts. The nearest he got to carrying a spear was in a couple of New Shakespeare Company productions, but in only his fourth play with them he was already playing Romeo. He played the victim’s boyfriend (and thus a suspect), in a studded leather jacket, intense and on the verge of tears in the first Prime Suspect (1991), and then stepped straight up to bat as T. E. Lawrence in a TV movie, A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia. Indeed, with those piercing blue eyes, he seemed a natural successor to Peter O’Toole; it was in this role that he was noticed by Steven Spielberg.
After that, he sprang fully-formed into leading film roles. His pairing with Juliette Binoche in Wuthering Heights (1992) lacks the rapport they would later share in The English Patient, and Fiennes’s greasy-haired, Yorkshire-accented Heathcliff seems a little jejune. (When he has long hair, it always seems more lank and greasy than lustrous.) In retrospect, maybe Heathcliff just doesn’t have any of the duality Fiennes would become so good at hinting at in his characters – what you see is what you get. The most prophetic aspect of his performance in Peter Greenaway’s much-derided The Baby of Mâcon (1993) is that, shortly before he’s gored by a bull, he takes his clothes off. Years later, on TV’s Inside the Actors Studio, Julianne Moore would tell us that his readiness to strip for the love scenes in The End of the Affair earned him the nickname “Mr. No-Pants”.
The usual trajectory for posh British actors is genteel period pieces, prestigious TV drama, rom-coms and Merchant-Ivory (in Fiennes’s case, these would all come later), but the film that put him on the map was as far from any of those as you can get. Untersturmführer Amon Goeth in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) is not a larger-than-life cartoon villain but a banal little man with a beer-belly, elevated to a position of obscene power in the Kraków-Plaszów concentration camp. Goeth is the opposite of the sort of glamorous-looking Nazis once played by James Mason or O’Toole, though some of us still found him sexy (and duly felt uncomfortable about it, given the nature of the film), though the sex appeal is undoubtedly that of the actor, since by any standards the character is repulsive.
It was a taste of things to come; Fiennes’ speciality is depicting human fallibility, whether lurking (admittedly quite a long way) beneath the surface of a monster like Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter films, or enabling us to empathise with the mentally deranged protagonist in David Cronenberg’s Spider (2002). Conversely, he shows the seam of weakness tarnishing a golden boy like Charles Van Doren, the patrician fraud of Quiz Show (1994) whose straight Arrow shirt looks can’t quite hide a barely perceptible air of panic, perhaps a sense that coasting through life on charm and entitlement may not be enough. There is invariably more to Fiennes than meets the eye. A comment by Maria L. on the estimable gofugyourself fashion and style site sums up his appeal: “He always looks to me as if he’s just done something naughty, or is contemplating doing something naughty.”
So much so that in Fiennes’s one venture into conventional rom-com territory – Maid in Manhattan (2002) – you can’t help but suspect his senatorial candidate is harbouring secrets far dirtier than a DSK-adjacent liaison with a hotel chambermaid (albeit an unfeasibly glamorous one played by Jennifer Lopez in borrowed Dolce & Gabbana). Light comedy is maybe not his forte; his John Steed in The Avengers (1998) looks every inch the dapper gent, but you wouldn’t trust him an inch. Perhaps he would have been more fruitfully cast as the villain, or even as Emma Peel.
Fiennes has the looks of a dashing romantic hero – even with a harelip, it’s hard to believe that only a blind woman might be be attracted to his Tooth Fairy in Red Dragon (2002). But stare long enough, and those looks can also seem shifty, even weaselly, like those of Lenny Nero, so morally compromised in Strange Days (1995) that the film’s heroism has to be delegated to his friend and ally Mace, played by Angela Bassett.
His golden boy looks are obliterated altogether by prosthetic make-up (a foreshadowing of Voldemort’s bankrobber-wearing-a-stocking-over-his-head look) in The English Patient (1996); Count Laszlo de Almásy has literally been burned up by his ardent affair with a married woman. (Luckily there are always the flashbacks for us to ogle his blue-blooded good looks, though some viewers found it hard to suspend belief over Kristin Scott Thomas favouring him over Colin Firth, who plays her cuckolded husband.) True romance, in Fiennes’s characters, is not an end in itself, but has consequences, usually sad ones. Even as the mild-mannered diplomat of The Constant Gardener (2005), his love for his wife achieves its full flowering only after her death.
He was splendidly louche in a stovepipe hat as Onegin (his sister Martha’s 1999 directing debut). On paper, his Duke in The Duchess (2008) sounds like a villain, but as played by Fiennes, he’s a poignant character, more at ease with his dogs than with Keira Knightley, and as much a victim of the era’s social mores as she is. His Charles Dickens in The Invisible Woman (2013) is another man who could easily have been played as a one-dimensional bounder, but Fiennes makes him a fully-rounded, complicated, imperfect human being. Now his golden boy good looks are at last being rubbed off a bit, he’s coming into his own as a leading character actor.
His splenetic Harry the mob boss in In Bruges (2008) might have been more impressive had it not seemed like a pale shadow of Ben Kingsley’s bellicosity in the earlier Sexy Beast. But his Coriolanus (in his own 2011 directing debut) is an uncompromising portrayal of bullet-headed martial vaingloriousness, a man so proud he’s prepared to take the city (Rome) down with him. Probably the most delightful and endearing character he has ever played is Gustave H., in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Amid the film’s colourful assembly of caricatures, his fey but ferociously efficient concierge is full of regretful nuance and provides the film with its moral backbone, heartbreakingly embodying the values of a lost epoch. It’s a lovely performance.
As for Laurence Laurentz, the cravat-wearing expat-English film director in the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! (2016), one’s suspicions that this wicked pastiche of a Laurence Olivier type (maybe with a dash of Cukor and Minnelli) has been a bit of a naughty boy in his time are ultimately borne out by the screenplay. I bet I’m not the only one looking forward to seeing what hidden naughtiness will be lurking beneath the surface of his “M”, one of the most intriguing elements in the sloppy Bond films Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015). Judi Dench is a hard act to follow, but if anyone can do it, Fiennes can; he looks precisely like the sort of civil servant who could as easily blend into a crowd as kill you with a Biro. Maybe ditch James Bond altogether and just give us The Further Adventures of M?
This article was first posted on the Telegraph website in February 2015. It has since been extensively rewritten, edited and added to.