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A Different Side of Harry Potter‘s Ralph Fiennes

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Fiennes as VoldemortOf late, English actor Ralph Fiennes (pronounced, by the way, “Rafe Fines”) has come to be known as the evil Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter film franchise. Who better than the great Shakespearian actor, who so chillingly portrayed Amon Göth in Schindler’s List and psychopath Francis Dolarhyde in Silence of the Lambs not-quite-prequel Red Dragon?

Although Fiennes is brilliant at portraying evil, I believe he’s at his best portraying brooding, tormented anti-heroes. All of his characters are complex, deeply layered, and even when his anti-heroes are not overtly sympathetic, and, yes, even when he’s portraying pure evil, he allows us to see the emotion simmering inside, behind those great expressive green eyes. 

So as we impatiently await the climactic conclusion of the Harry Potter film saga (opening in the U.S. later this week), I’d like to introduce you to a different (and very fine) on-screen Fiennes, and some of his more sympathetic roles, where you will find little of Voldemort lurking—and much to love. Please note that this isn’t a comprehensive filmography and the films only represent a few of my favorite Fiennes films. So forgive the omissions, and do add them to the comments section if I’ve missed your favorites.

Quiz Show (1994): Fiennes plays Charles Van Doren in Robert Redford’s fantastic film about the TV game show scandal in the 1950s. With a brilliant script and wonderful performances from Fiennes, John Turturro, Paul Scofield and Rob Morrow (as Congressional investigator Richard Goodwin, upon whose memoirs the film is based), Quiz Show presents history as a very relevant commentary on the power of corporate media, and our fascination with celebrity. Fiennes is great as the conflicted young professor at the center of the scandal, seduced into cheating by the producers of the game show 21 as his popularity grows. The scenes between Van Doren and his father (played by Scofield), especially as the film drives toward its end, are mesmerizing. Fiennes plays no hero in this film, but you can’t feel anything but sympathy for Charlie as events play out.

Strange Days (1995): Lenny is a near-future former copRalph Fiennes as Lenny Nero in Strange Days addicted to virtual reality SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device) clips, which allow the user to experience not only action, but the intense emotions captured on the recordings. Obsessed with ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis), Lenny barely gets by in life by dealing in bootleg clips in a dsytopic, cyberpunk world worthy of a Philip K. Dick novel. He’s a wreck of a man, and a bit of a sleaze at first glance, but we don’t know him like Mace (Angela Basset), a bodyguard whose life Lenny rescued during a more vulnerable time. She’s his only lifeline, and although she’s in love with him, Lenny is obsessed his SQUID memories of the unfaithful Faith. When he gets a “snuff” clip, a SQUID recording showing the brutal murder from the victims point of view, Lenny is caught in a political and criminal maze on a millennial New Year’s eve. (It’s actually set on New Year’s Eve 1999). Fiennes is great as the sleazy, but soft-hearted, Lenny, who only very reluctantly transcends his life to find within himself the better man he once was. Although the often-underrated movie is slightly dated from out here in 2011, it’s a wild ride—and Fiennes and Basset are terrific together.

The English Patient (1996): One of Fiennes most famous film roles, it is considered by some to be the consummate tale of passionate love, revenge and healing. Fiennes plays Count Laszlo Almasy, a geographer on a 1939 Royal Society expedition to uncover a cave in the Sahara. Almasy becomes involved with Katharine (Kristen Scott-Thomas), the wife of expedition colleague Clifton (Colin Firth). Their affair indirectly leads to eventual tragedy as events unfold over the early days of World War II. The story is revealed in a series of flashbacks as the badly-burned Almasy (covered head-to-toe in bandages) tells his story to Hana (Juliette Binoche), the young French-Canadian nurse who cares for him in a bombed-out Italian home. The movie is a major tear-jerker, so bring the Kleenex.

Oscar and Lucinda (1997): Interestingly, this was the first Fiennes film I saw that really grabbed my attention and made me a devoted Fiennes fan. I’d already seen Schindler, Quiz Show—and The English Patient—by the time I caught this quirky Australian movie by Gillian Armstrong on cable. I tend to gravitate towards romantic misfits, and Fiennes’ portrayal of the sweet, shy, awkward Anglican priest with a penchant for gambling got to me. He meets Lucinda (Cate Blanchett), a young heiress and businesswoman, equally a misfit in 19th Century society, when Oscar leaves England to take a posting in Australia. Although they seem destined for each other and become great friends, they are indeed star-crossed as lovers, and never more so than when Oscar makes a grand, insane—and heroic (in its own way) attempt to win Lucinda. Oscar is a universe (or 10) away from Voldemort. 

Sunshine (1999): A historical drama, Sunshine portrays three generations of a Hungarian Jewish family living through good times, persecution, trauma and drama from the early 20th Century through the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, including the family’s horrific experiences during World War II. Fiennes is the protagonist in each generation father, son, and grandson. It’s a fabulous cast, including Jennifer Ehle (The King’s Speech), Rachel Weisz (who appears with Fiennes again in The Constant Gardner), William Hurt, and Rosemary Harris (Spiderman).

End of the Affair (1999): A love affair in the midst of World War II England between novelist Maurice Bendix (Fiennes) and Sarah (Julianne Moore), the wife of a bland English diplomat Henry (Stephen Rea, The Crying Game) frames this story of love, friendship and belief based on Graham Greene’s novel. Although it’s moves slowly at times, and the soundtrack is occasionally intrusive, Fiennes, Moore and Rea are excellent together in this film by Neil Jordan (The Borgias). Fiennes, in particular, is at his brooding best as the cynical Bendix.

Spider (2002): After playing a lot of tormented lovers in the late ‘90s, Fiennes switched gears completely, playing the practically mute schizophrenic Dennis Kleg in David Cronenberg’s indie film. Kleg, living in a sort of halfway house after being released from a mental institution wanders the neighborhood as he triesFiennes and John Neville in David Cronenberg's Spider to piece back together the fractured and fragmented memories of his childhood and the horrific murder of his parents. Did Kleg murder his parents—or just witness it? It’s a quiet and brilliant performance from Fiennes. The film also features Miranda Richardson (Harry Potter) and Gabriel Byrne (In Treatment).

The Constant Gardener (2005): Fiennes is Justin Quayle, a bookish British diplomat posted to Kenya. His wife (Rachel Weisz) is an activist who uncovers a conspiracy between government and the pharmaceutical industry. After her murder, Quayle continues her investigation, with her notes and voice in his head as his muse, to uncover why she died, and finish what she started. Based on John LeCarre’s novel, The Constant Gardner is part spy thriller and part love story. Fiennes subtly takes Quayle from a quiet and somewhat weak husband to the obsessed, driven man he becomes as he gets closer to the truth—with former friends in hot pursuit.

So there you have it, more than enough to feed your fancy. So what’s your favorite of the Fiennes filmography? Let me (and other readers) know in the comments thread.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • sandra

    all of them except Avengers. I also really like his role in Maid in Manhattan although it seems a lot of people don’t like it.Can’t wait to see Coriolanus at the TIFF.

  • Hi Electra. I’ve seen both Dalton’s and Fiennes Heathcliffs in their respective Wuthering Heights’. Can decide which I like better–I like both very much.

    Ralph is very versatile, and I think I’ve seen his entire filmography–multiple times. Do you really want to skip Part II? 😉

  • Electra

    I also loved Ralph in Wuthering Heights–a terrifying performance and legend has it the one that made Spielberg want him for Amon Goeth. I saw The English Patient 8 times, so I did not find it boring. The dullest of his films is The White Countess, a real shame because I loved Natasha Richardson and her mother and her aunt were also in this surprisingly pedestrian movie. Ralph can even be charming in trifles life Maid in Manhattan or The Chumbscrubber, and bring the humanity out of despicable characters like the one in The Duchess. He and Susan Sarandon made Bernard and Doris worth watching. Can’t wait for Coriolanus. I saw him do it on stage and I hear good things about the film. But do I really have to sit through Deathy Hallows? I skipped Part I. Tell me I can skip Part II, pleeeaaase?

  • Flo

    @Barbara, Yes I knew that about “Quiz Show”. And Director Martin Scorsese plays in it!

  • zsuzsanna

    Congratulation Barbara for the wonderful article! You expressed my thoughts too. Two little additions:
    1/ From your list it’s quite clear that Ralph Fiennes can’t be categorized as ‘hero’ or ‘lover’ or ‘villain’ even not as protagonist or supporting actor or character actor because he’s all together. His transformability is fantastic, you can’t recognize him in the different roles (Spider’s Dennis Clegg vs Duke of Devonshire from The Duchess, Quiz Show’s Charles Van Doren vs. In Bruges’s Harry Waters, Lord Voldemort vs. Todd Jackson of White Countess, the 3 Sonnenscheins vs. Red Dragon’s Francis Dolarhyde etc.) The characters, their masks their souls are quite different,
    2/ only the pathway of creating them has the same mechanism: a/ the clear analysis of the parts the understanding and realization of their psychology and behind them b/ the big emotionality, which is very characteristic to his perfotmances.
    He knows everything of acting and calling him a ‘cold actor’ stems from his complete misjudgement.

  • byzantine-I loved Onegin as well. The only reason I didn’t include it on my list was that I felt the others were less difficult to appreciate. Onegin gives us a great view into how well he acts with those great eyes.

  • byzantine

    Most people associate Ralph Fiennes with the English Patient, which somehow never did it for me. I think of Fiennes in one of the most beautiful and poetic recreations of Pushnkin’s ouevre–Onegin. He was absolutely perfect in the role of the brooding, seemingly disaffected, but also deeply feeling Onegin, and his chemistry with Liv Tyler’s Tatyiana was phenomenal.

    Thank you Barbara for the wonderful article and for the inadvertent recommendations. I am going to have to change my Netflix subscription.

  • @tvfashionaddict

    Your article has most definitely inspired me want to watch the films I haven’t seen yet, so thank you. It’s an extremely difficult choice between the ones I have seen. He is an incredibly emotive actor who manages to captivate both my attention and my heart straight away in both ‘The Constant Gardner’ and ‘The English Patient’. He’s the kind of actor who becomes the character rather than plays him. I also thought he was phenomenal in ‘Schindler’s List’. All three films are heartbreaking, despite his different roles. I have literally just finished watching ‘The English Patient’ and was overwhelmed to floods of tears by how brilliant it is, so I think this time I will give that film my vote.

    Ps. I also loved him in ‘Red Dragon’ and ‘In Bruges’. Ok, so I think love all his films.

  • Speaking of Quiz Show, did you know that the script was co-written by Paul Attanasio, co-creator of House and Katie Jacobs’ husband?

  • Flo

    “The Constant Gardener” was really good because of the great balance between spy film and love story indeed. Also I like the fact that the guy discovers and fully falls in love with his wife once she’s dead. The ultimate tragedy but it was really beautifully done.

    I do think that “Strange Days” is underrated even if it’s not a real fantastic movie. Bigelow is not a fully great director but she’s good and “Strange Days” was a very solid film all in all. All the actors were great!

    I’m glad you put “The End of an Affair” that I consider also really underrated. A lot of people think of it as a boring movie but I disagree. It’s not because nothing happens that nothing happens if you catch my drift. I like what is at stake here. I think it’s quite well done and it is a fascinating movie despite its flaws. The actors were terrific indeed.

    “Quiz Show” is great. I really like it. It was really interesting and well done. TV can really consume you so when you add the political aspect… Good movie. Ralph Fiennes was perfect in the guy who ends doing something he doesn’t want to do while protecting the appearance & John Turturro was also awesome. It also says a lot about the education. Knowledge is not the privilege of the wealthy people and integrity is an issue that touches everyone. No matter how good looking, and of good presentation you are.

    I can’t stand “The English Patient” though. I found it long and boring especially the flashbacks with Thomas and Fiennes. It’s too bad because they are both excellent. They have great chemistry. Honestly they are a beautiful couple but I really couldn’t care less about their love story. I think the movie tried too much on too many front. You have the Juliette Binoche story and then the Ralph Fiennes story and then also the Willem Dafoe story which comes to intersect. The filming is good, the movie itself is beautiful but it’s boring because in the end who really cares about Almasy and Katharine? The part in the war was more interesting to me. I think it was because it was during the wart and the choice that this nurse made to stay there in Italy was strong and risky and her story with the Indian guy was more appealing because more caught in the moment and more poetic in a way. There was more that just an adultery love story. Instead of trying so hard with making two movies at once, I think Minghella would have won on just telling one interesting story.

    I didn’t see “Spider” even though I love David Cronenberg’s movies and I also didn’t see “Oscar and Lucinda” and “Sunshine” that I did know nothing about.

    Ralph Fiennes is most known for his drama roles but he actually played in a comedy that I found funny. It’s called “In Bruges”. It’s also with Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell and it’s real fun. It’s not a real great movie but I like its dialogues and situations that don’t always add up. I thought it was well done. Fiennes has not a main part in it but he is really scary in it, in his own way.

  • Sacha

    I’ve just realised that I have seen almost all of his early works, but wasn’t so happy with the more, let’s say, creepy stuff that he was doing later. Spider was pretty disturbing, as was Red Dragon, and I’m not particularly keen on the Voldemort make up. I think he used to be one of my favourite actors, but I seem to have lost track a little when he became more ‘mainstream’. 😉

    My favourites are definately Oscar & Lucinda (beautiful, beautiful Australian scenery and a very touching story), and The End of the Affair. Michael Nymans score still haunts me. I really want to see them again.

  • Thanks Savta! I was just remarking to my husband that I’m going to re-watch every one of them! Favorite?

  • savtaof5

    Barbara – As usual, you’ve done a great job of capturing the essence of each of these movies. This piece makes me want to see the ones I’ve missed.