Of 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 cop 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 tries 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.