There is a moment during my conversation with Ralph Fiennes when he finds himself, unusually, lost for words. I ask him if he is aware that there is an impassioned YouTube debate on “Top 10 Ralph Fiennes performances”, with many of his followers outraged that the number one slot has gone to his portrayal of Lord Voldemort, arch-enemy of Harry Potter, in the films of the JK Rowling fantasy novels.
Fiennes, who has so far been eloquent and thoughtful, is momentarily stymied. “I … try to avoid that online stuff,” he finally replies, with an uncertain smile playing on his face. And then he typically proceeds to analyse the difficulties of playing a fictional character who is the embodiment of evil. “There is not a lot of subtext there. He is not that ambiguous. It’s total malevolence. He is kind of the devil, isn’t he?” I don’t think online polls are meant to be taken that seriously, I want to say, but then Fiennes gives every impression of being a very serious man.
His repertoire may have diversified in recent years to include television sitcoms (an improbably charismatic Bishop of London in Rev), horror thrillers (he is a William Blake-obsessed, psychotic killer in Red Dragon) and gangster films (the scabrous In Bruges, in which he delivers the show-stopping line, “I’m sorry for calling you an inanimate object. I was upset,” with the aplomb of a young Michael Caine).
But these are not the standout Fiennes performances. Think of Amon Goeth, the sadistic Nazi officer from Schindler’s List, or Count Laszlo de Almasy, the dashing protagonist of Anthony Minghella’s multi-Oscar-winning The English Patient: definitive interpretations of the banality of evil and the nobility of doomed romantic love, respectively. They were the roles that made the handsome and intense Fiennes a genuine film star.
But he was never going to be one to hang around to see how long his Hollywood “A” list status would last. As well as moving into unfamiliar comedic territory, his work in recent years has deepened. In 2011 he directed his first film, a contemporary version of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, in which he also took the title role. It was full of sharp and resonant observations on present-day politics and gave this most violent of plays entirely fresh connotations.
His latest project is The Invisible Woman, based on the book by Claire Tomalin, which recounts the relationship between Charles Dickens and his secret lover, Ellen “Nelly” Ternan. The middle-aged Dickens fell in love with the 18-year-old actress and started an affair which came close to ruining him and helped end his marriage to Catherine, mother of his 10 children.
Fiennes, who directs and plays Dickens, produces one of his most restrained, subtle performances as the author, opposite the equally compelling Felicity Jones as Nelly. This is no grand, passionate love affair, in the spirit of The English Patient; it is a nervous romance that is never entirely sure it wants to get off the ground at all.
“It couldn’t have happened any other way,” says Fiennes, almost defensively. “It was a very slow, gradual build-up. I don’t think they rushed towards each other against the sunset. Nelly was young and tentative, Dickens was a married man. It was a very gradual coming-together.
“What Abi [Morgan, the screenwriter] did was to provide this beautiful central scene, which just shows the two of them talking and listening: in essence, a chat-up scene. But there is real intimacy there. Love stories on film are full of all these tropes: bodices bursting, the white horse up the hill. But that would have been totally inappropriate here.
“It raises the question: what is intimacy between two people? The bedroom is a tiny part of it. It is about trust, and listening, and working out how people come to learn about each other. Those stages of intimacy where an intense friendship becomes a love affair: those were our co-ordinates.”
When the two of them do consummate their relationship, there is an almost comically still lovemaking scene, I say. “That was very deliberate. I discussed it with Felicity. I think Dickens cared so much about Nelly, he would be highly sensitive to what it was going to be like for her for the first time.”
The sense of intimacy is reflected in Fiennes’ directorial style, which brings the camera tightly on to his protagonists’ faces, focusing almost microscopically on small sections of bare skin. There is a rich warmth in these scenes that is too often missing in the genre of English costume drama. “When you are trying to portray what is happening inside someone’s mind, the face is your main landscape,” says Fiennes.
“I remember working with [the Hungarian director] Istvan Szabo, who told me, ‘For me, the cinema is about the close-up.’ Seeing the thoughts and feelings that are born on the face for the first time. When I worked with him, he was always looking for subtleties of expression. He wanted the moment when the text felt fresh.
“There is a fragility as an actor learns the scene that sometimes has disappeared by the sixth or seventh take. Some little hesitation, something in the eyes, something that’s unguarded, or an accident. Those are the precious moments.”
Fiennes cannot help acting these words as he pronounces them: his voice lowers, he draws me into the conversation and looks me straight in the eye with an intensity that is mighty compelling. He is looking fit and relaxed, younger than his 51 years, with neatly cropped hair and a mildly tanned complexion that is more LA than his native Suffolk.
He is soft-spoken in conversation and has a certain bearing which reminds you that he is Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, eighth cousin of the Prince of Wales, and not at all born to play Nazis and serial killers, which makes him such a brilliant choice for those dark roles.
He has a clutch of younger siblings in “the business”: Joseph is an actor, Martha a director, Magnus a composer and Sophie a film-maker. His nephew Hero Fiennes-Tiffin played Tom Riddle, the young Lord Voldemort, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. This is British culture’s premier dynasty and, it seems, in his sober demeanour, as if he feels the weight of that accolade.
His view of Dickens is benign: he plays the author with abundant sympathy, even though the rumours of Dickens’ affair scandalised many of his contemporaries. Most of the criticism centred on the treatment of his wife, Catherine. Tomalin writes in her otherwise generous biography of the author: “The spectacle of a man famous for his goodness and his attachment to domestic virtues suddenly losing his moral compass is dismaying.”
“All his biographers are dismayed,” says Fiennes. “Claire loves Dickens, I love Dickens. You can accept someone who is following his heart. But the hardest thing to take is his need to justify himself, the way he chose to protect himself. He wrote newspaper articles inferring that Catherine had not been a good mother. That is pretty hard to take.
“He lost some close friends as a result. He had a rift with [William] Thackeray over it although they made it up. In a way he comes across as rather pathetic. I think he was a bit lost. Today we have this culture of therapy and counselling. Then, there was only your amour propre and the sense of yourself in the world. The first thing that people protected was their reputation and honour. He is actually very unsophisticated as a celebrity. Today he would just have been advised to shut up, not write letters to The Times.”
I ask Fiennes if it is true that he wasn’t a particular admirer of the author before starting the project. “I had only read Little Dorrit and hadn’t felt inspired to read a whole lot more. It was reading The Invisible Woman that made me want to read the novels.” Fiennes went on a crash course: Bleak House, David Copperfield, Our Mutual Friend, Great Expectations. “I read them seeing if I could make sense of the man described in the biography.”
Did he succeed?
“I think there is a lot of shadow in Dickens. A sense of corrupt people, morally challenged people of extraordinary eccentricity and idiosyncrasies. That gothic, dark side was very interesting to me.” Fiennes gives as an example the behaviour of Our Mutual Friend’s Bradley Headstone: “He is obsessively in love and he confronts the girl [Lizzie Hexam] in a long moment in a graveyard, and he is violent, willing her to accept him, and he hits his knuckles on a tombstone until they bleed. It is extreme, there is something raw and desperate about him. And Dickens wrote that when he was with Nelly.”
In just two films as a director, Fiennes has already shown an adaptability to his subject that transcends any evidence of a visual signature. Where The Invisible Woman is soft and calorous, his updating of Coriolanus was brisk and aggressive, full of virtuoso postmodern touches such as using Channel 4 News’s Jon Snow as a television anchorman propelling the narrative.
I ask Fiennes if it was always his intention to begin his directing career with Shakespeare. “I think it probably was,” he says, almost resignedly, hinting at a divinity that was shaping his ends. “I wanted to be an actor because of Shakespeare. It is my first love.” His curiosity to sample life behind the camera lens was fuelled by some of the directors he worked with: as well as Szabo, Anthony Minghella (“A very inclusive, generous man, who always wanted the input of the people working with him”) and Fernando Meirelles, who directed him in 2005’s The Constant Gardener.
It was that film’s producer, Simon Channing Williams, who first encouraged Fiennes to try his hand at directing. “He approached me with a film script, which never got made, but it gave me a lot of confidence.” In the meantime, he was harbouring thoughts on Shakespeare’s most brutal work.
“I had this mad idea about it, that it would make a great movie if it was done as a strong political thriller that portrayed the fickleness of people and the fickleness of politicians. It was a brilliant deconstruction of our dysfunction as human beings. I thought that if you cleared out the dense, impossible text that makes it such a difficult play, the storyline was rigorously exciting.”
I ask him about the challenges of playing Shakespeare, particularly one of his most visceral characters, on film rather than the stage. “Film can be great for Shakespeare,” he replies. “I am not so sure that the declaimed Shakespeare that was fitting for Drury Lane 150 years ago is still the only way to do it. People then went for the rotundity of the sound, the vocal display, which you can still hear, brilliantly, in Olivier or Gielgud.
“But the way we receive language is changing so much. Our vocabulary is dwindling so much, by the day. I have to admit to being in love with [Shakespeare’s] language. The muscularity of the verse, the difficulty of the verse. For me, it’s a turn-on.
“But in a funny way, Shakespeare can be released on film. You get the delicate, complicated expression of emotion together with the language. In the theatre, it can suffer from the strain of being projected. The intimate moments can be supported and enhanced on film.”
Having said all that, I say, his Coriolanus blows the house down in the scene when the war-hero famously loses his temper with his people. “I felt that had to be a full explosion,” he replies simply, and gives me a small sample: “You common cry of curs!” He looks me straight in the eye again, and it is a little scary. “It is a monstrous explosion. Some people said to me, ‘Ralph, is that too much?’ But all my instincts said this was a mad, extreme thing, an irrational rage that was not contained at all.”
We turn to the jostling at the sharp end of the Top 10 Ralph Fiennes performances. There was a good deal of online discussion, I say, on which of his two “baddies” was the greater rendition, Voldemort or Amon Goeth. “Amon Goeth was a huge breakthrough for me,” he says. “It was brilliantly written by [screenwriter] Steven Zaillian, and the way I played him was totally to do with the way I was directed by Steven [Spielberg]. When he asked me to do something, he was quite strong, which I loved.”
I press him further: which incarnation of evil was the greater challenge to play? “Of course Voldemort was terrific fun to act. But it was a mythic evil. Goeth is a historical figure, there have been biographies of him. What he stands for is all those men and women who agreed with Hitler’s proposals [on the final solution]. If Goeth is evil, so was a huge section of the population of Germany which agreed with him, or turned a blind eye. He was one of many people who formed a profoundly disturbing mass movement.
“But Goeth was not trying to control the world. He was a man who was meeting the challenges of his own daily work. Steven was right when he said, let the audience feel the evil. The actor shouldn’t play the evil, he should be in the present moment.”
Fiennes’ lauded turn as the slobbish Goeth was followed, three years later, by his aristocratic Laszlo in The English Patient, establishing him as a classically trained actor who could zip from one extreme of the moral spectrum to the other. He has made few false notes, save for the disastrous The Avengers (I don’t bring it up lest he goes all Coriolanus on me).
I ask him if his ever more eclectic choice of roles was a deliberate strategy. “I’m not so sure how great the strategy thing is,” he says. “Often you get wrongfooted. You are at the mercy of what’s going to come your way. At the moment, for instance, I am saying that I don’t want to do another period film. But I have just been sent a really great screenplay. My strategy is being somewhat challenged. It is important to be open to things.”
And then there is M, I say: Fiennes made a teasing appearance at the end of Skyfall as Dame Judi Dench’s replacement and is slated to appear in the 24th James Bond film, to be released next year. So what is going to happen, I ask? “I believe it’s being written as we speak,” he replies and then, for the first time, goes into immaculate press-release mode. “I am curious and excited to know what is going to be offered up.” Aren’t we all?