If he hasn’t cast a spell over you yet, he will by the time you see how he slow dances.
We can’t see him but we know he’s there, fine in his dinner suit, brooding on the sidelines, watching her spin around the floor with another man, a man who isn’t her husband. Soon enough, he will be the other man, not just on the dance floor and not before the tension between them builds, excruciatingly, and she beats him into submission.
But first, and most importantly, they must face the music and dance.
Early in The English Patient (1996) Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Count László de Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) find themselves on the dance floor of a ballroom in a chic Cairo hotel. Other bodies swirl around them, but the film’s director, the late, very great Anthony Minghella (1954-2008), pushes the camera in on them, narrowing its gaze to show how the world has reduced down now to just these two elegant people, turning slowly and effortlessly to the beautiful Rodgers and Hart standard ‘Where or When’.
It’s the late 1930s; the world will soon be at war. He’s a Hungarian count and cartographer, co-leader of a Royal Geographical Society archaeological and surveying expedition; she has accompanied her husband, Geoffrey (Colin Firth) to North Africa so he can secretly make aerial maps for the British government. Since Almásy and Katherine’s first meeting in the desert there has been a flicker of a spark. Now is their chance to flame it.
Like Minghella’s camera, Almásy’s gaze narrows down on Katherine and she is caught under its spell. As they dance, they talk. Katherine asks Almásy why he followed her yesterday from the market to the hotel. Almásy replies that he was concerned about a European woman on her own, in that part of Cairo, and “felt obliged to … as the wife of one of our party.” She suggests he could have ‘escorted’ her instead, that his following her was almost ‘predatory.’ He says nothing, just focuses his rapacious eyes on her and they tell us everything we need to know without a word ever leaving his mouth. That gaze is intense, so intense at first that she can’t meet it, can’t look back. He won’t back down, won’t look away. His eyes, like his arms, now that they have her in their grasp, won’t let her go.
When I first saw The English Patient I was just as spellbound as Katherine. I still am. Ralph Fiennes has a way of looking – of beholding his subject, observing and considering it – that is quite intense, powerful and even a little unsettling. I was caught under the spell of those pale blue-green/grey eyes, deep pools of empathy and fire. Ralph Fiennes has eyes that look like they contain secrets and he concentrates them into a gaze that could burn a hole right through you. Among actors working today, I think only Michael Fassbender comes close to being able to trigger this much damage with just one look.
Maybe I’m a masochist. I saw The English Patient three times at the cinema back in 1996 and I’ve watched it several times since. Its allure is like a fever that just won’t break.
Fiennes’ eyes provide a way into discussing his acting style. You can distill much of his power as an actor when you look at his other scenes in The English Patient – not those scenes where we see him handsome and passionate with Katherine before the war, but later in the last days of the Italian retreat, when he’s confined to a bed in that ruined Tuscan house, burnt beyond recognition, being nursed by Juliette Binoche’s sympathetic Hanna. Here, he’s a mass of thickened scar tissue and damaged organs. His face has been emptied of expression; his eyes are the only way we have into his character’s experience and emotional life. They are eyes that contain secrets, to be slowly revealed as the narrative unfolds.
If, as they say, the eyes are the windows to the soul, Fiennes’ eyes reveal multitudes about him. When I look into them I see an intelligent, elegant man. His eyes tell me he’s focused, melancholy, sexy, a little dangerous, a little mischievous, complicated, and a bit tortured when it comes to matters of the heart. Fiennes’ eyes suggest a man of contradictions – just like most of the characters he’s played – a man who can’t be pinned down. And I know next time I look into them I’ll see something new, uncover something more of their mysteries.
Fiennes has a compelling, penetrating gaze that has served him well in weighty, serious cinema roles. He has eyes so extraordinary, really, that whenever I look at a photo of him or watch him on screen, they are the first things I see and the only thing I can focus on throughout the viewing experience. It’s almost like the rest of his face is just a smudge. This was effective in The English Patient and also in the role for which he is most well known with a wider audience, as the Dark Lord, Voldemort, in the Harry Potter franchise, where his face, in its hideous, snake-like deformation is ultimately obliterated, just a blank canvas from which those two piercing eyes look out.
The power of Fiennes’ eyes has not been lost on filmmakers or the publicity machine that supports them. Back in 1995, Fiennes’ eyes were the main event on the poster for Kathryn Bigelow’s sci-fi thriller, Strange Days.
And yet Fiennes has a face that changes, completely, when he smiles. Whatever seems too intense, grave or gloomy in his expression disappears – his face opens up and glows. He looks goofy and like he’s happy to be.
There is almost universal agreement that no one plays a tortured lover quite like Ralph Fiennes does. In fact, he made his film debut in 1992 as the definitive tortured lover, Heathcliff, alongside Juliette Binoche as Cathy in a version of Wuthering Heights directed by Peter Kosminsky. If you’re not yet a signatory to this international agreement, in addition to The English Patient, do see him as Maurice Bendrix in The End of the Affair (1999, Neil Jordan), as Justin Quayle in The Constant Gardner (2002, Fernando Meirelles), as the older Michael Berg in The Reader (2008, Stephen Daldry), and most recently as Charles Dickens in his second outing as director in The Invisible Woman (2013).
But Fiennes has always been a versatile and daring actor. He has an enviable resume brimming with great film performances – in Sunshine (1999, István Szabó), Spider (2002, David Cronenberg), the little-seen but excellent The Good Thief (2002, Neil Jordan), Red Dragon (2002, Brett Ratner), The White Countess (2005, James Ivory), The Hurt Locker (2008, Kathryn Bigelow), The Duchess (2008, Saul Dibb) and the brilliant In Bruges (2008, Martin McDonagh).
And to date, Fiennes has also been a part of two of the biggest film franchises of all time – as the previously mentioned Voldemort from The Goblet of Fire to The Deathly Hallows Part 2 (four of the seven Harry Potter films), and now as Gareth Mallory in the Bond films from Skyfall (2012, Sam Mendes), replacing Judi Dench as M from the end of that film on.
Fiennes, with a strong dramatic training at RADA and an apprenticeship at the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, is a serious actor but not a showy one. Even during moments that negotiate explosive emotional terrain – of which there are many in his directorial debut Coriolanus (2011), where he also takes the lead – he’s still interior, contained. But if his body is still all you need to do is look into his eyes and there is movement, life and fire. The only time it might be argued he put a foot wrong was in the woefully insipid rom-com Maid in Manhattan (2002, Wayne Wang) alongside Jennifer Lopez, where he looked like a fish out of water, playing a character a little lifeless, inside and out. Fiennes has a tremendous range and he is best served by roles that put it to use, by roles that ask him to transform some part of himself into something we were never quite expecting to see before.
One of my first encounters with Ralph Fiennes and that magnetic gaze was in Robert Redford’s underrated gem, Quiz Show (1994). Here, Fiennes plays the real life Charles Van Doren, who made it rich in the 1950s on the quiz show ‘Twenty One’. In the early days of television, Van Doren – a WASP with family ties deep in the East Coast intelligentsia – became a symbol of aspiration and desire for the TV watching masses. Pitted against Herb Stempel (John Turturro), a less attractive American (working-class, crass, Jewish), Van Doren, like all previous winning contestants, is given the answers, and is in turn seduced by the money that audiences tune in to see.
Fiennes, playing an American well, embodies the postwar period’s wide-eyed optimism – everything is shiny, all surfaces flawless. This cultural amnesia requires a different performance from him. Fiennes smiles a lot in Quiz Show and his eyes have a sparkle in them that he maintains, for a while, even as his world unravels. Charles, like his father, poet Mark Van Doren (the brilliant Paul Scofield), teaches Literature at Columbia University. Father and son share an office and an enviable ease (the late-night chocolate cake and milk scene is a favourite; it feels so natural). But what’s so brilliant about Redford’s film here (working from an incisive, thoughtful script by Paul Attanasio) is the way it builds this story as a fall from both national and paternal grace, and makes the family tragedy the greater of the two. When Charles comes clean to his father about taking the answers, his father’s disappointment is mirrored in his own eyes (‘Your name is mine!’), suddenly and dramatically stripped of their previous sheen, emptied of feeling. But that’s Fiennes’ great gift as an actor – he’s able to control a scene and then shift its emotional terrain with a blink.
To return to The English Patient, where Minghella builds a series of scenes around subtle shifts in Fiennes’ eyes. In two pivotal scenes, built around Almásy watching Katherine, Fiennes’ eyes expose his character’s emotional state.
In the first, at the height of his affair with Katherine, he sits and watches her help serve at a serviceman’s Christmas dinner from an alcove at the back of the room. When she approaches, he tells her to say she’s sick, to swoon, so she can disappear into a dark corner with him. His eyes are lustrous and lustful. You can see, just in those eyes, how full he is with her. And he tells Katherine that he can’t sleep, can’t write, “I’m trying to write with your taste in my mouth.”
Later, after their affair sours, Minghella echoes this earlier scene, positioning Almásy behind yet another partition, watching Katherine dance with another man. His eyes are lustful again, but also jealous, as he rages “why were you holding his collar?” He wants to touch her, to have the things that are his, for her to dance with him. But she won’t, she is hurting too much, caught between her guilt over their affair and her desire for him. His eyes are hard as glass but immediately soften when he sees how he’s hurt her. Although he doesn’t tell her now that he hurts too, he will later, back in the desert when he rescues her from the plane crash intended to kill him, and reveals that “Every night I cut out my heart, but in the morning it was full again.”
Perhaps nowhere is Fiennes’ ability to shift the tone of an entire scene with his eyes more powerfully on display than in his extraordinary performance as Commandant Amon Goeth in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). Fiennes’ gaze has been put to good use many times in roles that require danger and menace. As Goeth, we see an actor highly skilled at playing characters that exist in the greyer areas of human behavior. Which isn’t to say that Fiennes makes this Nazi monster sympathetic, but rather that he is able to unnerve us in the same way Goeth must have unnerved all those around him, with an erratic temperament that could turn in the blink of an eye.
This ability to produce discomfort is present in two specific scenes. In the first, a row of Jewish women line up for Goeth’s scrutiny so that he can choose a housekeeper for his villa at the Płaszów labour camp. He stalks the ground beneath their feet, attempting to present himself as an amiable man, in whose home these women should feel at ease and welcome. After he chooses Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz), we can exhale for a moment as the ‘interview’ has proceeded, incident free. But then he is distracted by some problems raised by his foreman of construction, a woman, who he immediately orders shot in the head right there in front of everyone, while his new housekeeper looks on, bearing witness, knowing she is about to step inside the lion’s den.
Throughout her time as his housekeeper, Helen is brutally mistreated by Goeth. In a particularly disturbing scene, Goeth comes downstairs in the middle of a party to thank her for being a good cook and well-trained servant. He attempts to find a line of common experience between them as two lonely people and says, “I would like so much to reach out and touch you in your loneliness … What would that be like, I wonder? What would be wrong with that?” Look into Goeth’s eyes and it seems he’s trying to work out his conflicting views, between attraction and repulsion. But as viewers we continue to feel unnerved as he moves closer. The scene is shot dark, with minimal lighting, adding to a menacing sense of claustrophobia for Helen and for us. He asks, “Is this the face of a rat?” He caresses her face, her breast, and says that he feels for her, but then he turns back, suddenly, chillingly, and says, “No I don’t think so, you Jewish bitch. You nearly talked me into it, didn’t you.” And then he slaps her face.
In this scene, as he does throughout Schindler’s List, Fiennes gives Goeth a disquieting, slippery sense of menace. He keeps us on edge by muddying the spaces between black and white, a far more effective approach than a caricatured portrayal of evil would be. This ability to create a constant sense of unease has also served him well in very different films, as Voldemort but also as Harry in In Bruges.
In case you hadn’t guessed, Fiennes fever is upon me once again with the release of two new films – Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel in which he has the lead and The Invisible Woman.
In the past weeks I’ve overheard chatter around the office from colleagues planning to see their first Wes Anderson film. I congratulate them for finally joining the party. More interesting to me was the way they have expressed surprise that an actor they mostly associate with the Harry Potter franchise was playing a comic role. The idea that Lord Voldemort might elicit a laugh or two seems completely contrary to their understanding of the universe. Critics have expressed the same astonishment, a sense of giddy delight in seeing Fiennes doing something that extends so far against type. What happens when Ralph Fiennes puts those potent eyes to work in lighter fare?
Fiennes is truly delightful as M. Gustave H, the concierge of The Grand Budapest, a lustrous alpine hotel in the fictional republic of Zubrowka. When we first meet him it’s 1932. M. Gustave excels at providing ‘exceptional service’ for the old, rich blonde women who flock to the Budapest. He also acts as a fervent mentor and advocate for the young, refugee lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori).
Fiennes reveals an outstanding gift for operatic farce. It’s a highly theatrical performance, but a performance marked by flawless timing and wit. He seems to relish the chance to deliver some genuinely hilarious dialogue, while also reciting romantic poetry and great chunks of dialogue in that deep, sonorous voice of his. Within the meticulously constructed world created here by Anderson, Fiennes gives a stylized performance shaped with great wells of feeling. He is perfect, maybe never better, and yes, so far from what most of us would expect from him. No torment here, but quite a bit of zaniness.
Fiennes has always had a screen presence suggestive of another time; perhaps, because of the many period films he’s been involved in, but also something else not quite so obvious. Fiennes brings to every film a fully formed narrative that extends well beyond the page. While M. Gustave spends much of the film capering about attending to the needs of others, and later planning his own escape from wrongful imprisonment, it’s impossible not to feel that there is more to M. Gustave’s story than we get to see here, that there are depths on which Fiennes has built this amiable chap. And while M. Gustave’s eyes are for the most part bright with life, they also contain a melancholy that hints at a well of sadness contained in the line of service.
In The Invisible Woman, Fiennes, as Charles Dickens, says, “Every human creature is a profound secret and mystery to every other.” Fiennes is an actor who I think has always known this. And his performances, so compelling and nuanced, have peeled away layers to try and get to this truth. From Amon Goeth to Count László de Almásy to M. Gustave H, those eyes have worked their wonders to unlock some profound secrets, for him, and for us.